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Pretty Persuasion

In the vein of dark classics Election and Heathers, Pretty Persuasion (2005) tackles the vicious and petty power struggles of contemporary high schoolers with the kind of sharp and shocking satire that is sure to delight (and define) a select group of sophisticated, iconoclastic teens while scaring the living shit out of unsuspecting parents. Evan Rachel Wood stars as Kimberly Joyce, an arch 15-year-old sociopath who liberally employs her nymphette-ish sexuality to manipulate her way through her elite Beverly Hills private school toward a career as an actress. The unflappable Kimberly enlists her emotional best friend Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois) and a naive new Muslim student, Randa (Adi Schnall), in a scheme to accuse a suspicious English teacher (Ron Livingston) of sexual harassment, but this plot mostly plays background to a harsh, disturbing, and often amusing, meditation on the exploitation of sexual power by young girls with too little adult supervision to prepare them for their burgeoning adulthood or the onslaught of libertine pop culture that seeks to seduce them into jaded apathy. Wood is brilliantly deadpan as the frighteningly disaffected, but mischievously ambitious Kimberly, packaging all of the amoral chaos of Larry Clark's Kids into the world of the spoiled and over-privileged. She appears simultaneously wicked and oblivious, detached from girlish emotion, but constantly selling the fantasy of a precocious schoolgirl. Galvanized by Wood's stunning performance, there are many fine comic scenarios in Pretty Persuasion, skillfully realized by screenwriter Skander Halim and director Marcos Siega. Kimberly's blithe appropriation of the innocent Randa into her decadent lifestyle is just a taste of the film's risky humor, which also includes Livingston's reluctant fetishizing of the schoolgirls he teaches (and, as his wife, Selma Blair's unthinking indulgence of an unhealthy fantasy), and James Woods' barking performance as Kimberly's Jew-hating dad who spends more time with phone-hos than with his own troubled daughter. Also very funny is a high school law teacher's (Danny Comden) inept legal defense of his besieged colleague. Unfortunately, for all their good work in build-up, Halim and Siega get caught in their own trap and struggle to discover an ending. Unable to sustain such a strong current of dangerous satire, they opt for a drastic change in tone, and the last 20 minutes are both too serious and too contrived (although Wood's performance remains incredibly strong and almost mitigates the unexpected shift), as if the ending for a searing, moralist adaptation of the same screenplay were spliced on by the disapproving Hays Office. Certainly, teens who are likely to identify with and celebrate Pretty Persuasion's bold cynicism are better served by such a medicinal (and realistic) about-face, but it disserves the movie's stylistic and thematic coherence and holds it back from the rarefied company of the similar cult classics it emulates. Also with Jane Krakowski as a promiscuous television reporter. Sony's Pretty Persuasion is presented in a good anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. No extras, keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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