Reckoning

(Okay, first a little disclosure: Pretty Persuasion was written by Skander Halim, an acquaintance of mine from various movie discussion boards and annual sojourns to the film festival in Toronto, where he resides. If you’re inclined to take my opinion of the movie with a grain (or a shaker) of salt, then you’re welcome to do so. I’d like to believe that I could be honest about it—goodness knows, I’ve also been in the awkward position of telling friends that I didn’t care for their creative ventures—but I begged off an official review of this film to ensure that it received a fair and unbiased assessment. Indeed, Nathan Rabin wrote a mixed review, which you can find here.)

Right off the bat, I think Pretty Persuasion is the most stinging critique of American values since Dogville, another film that garnered some unfair and often hyperbolic disdain from critics stateside, which I guess is what happens when a movie hits home. To get the plot details out of the way, the film stars Evan Rachel Wood as a wickedly manipulative Beverly Hills high school student who conspires with two other girls to fabricate sexual assault charges against her drama teacher (Ron Livingston). An aspiring actress, Wood believes that the media coverage—no matter if the charges stick or not—will result in her achieving fame and exposure, though her agenda runs deeper than it first appears. Comparisons (mostly unflattering) to other black comedies about youthful ambition and deviousness have been bandied about, specifically Heathers (cold), Election (warmer), and To Die For (ding!). Nathan was perceptive enough to bring up To Die For in his review, but I think Pretty Persuasion is the more daring of the two films, and not just because it goes to much greater extremes of political incorrectness. In To Die For, Nicole Kidman’s character is an abstract conception not unlike Faye Dunaway in the vastly overrated Network: She’s a remorseless, soulless monster created by television to destroy us all. Wood’s character in Pretty Persuasion is not that different in many respects—cold, manipulative, and certainly symbolic of social ills—but Halim and director Marcos Siega not only grant her a soul, but make her arguably the most sympathetic character in the movie, save maybe for an Arab girl who gets roped into the scheme.

A few things make Wood somewhat sympathetic, or at least understandable. For one, she’s growing up in an environment of total corruption and exploitation: Her father (James Woods) is an unapologetic racist and anti-Semite, married to a vapid sexpot who doesn’t come close to being an adequate mother-figure to Wood. (Wood’s constant barbs about her stepmother’s amorous relations with the family dog are among the funniest—and, in one case, surprisingly poetic—lines in the film.) For two, the men and boys in her life treat her like trash, seizing on her sexuality when it suits them and then brutally turning it against her: When she graciously acquiesces to a boyfriend’s perverted request, he breaks up with her for it and then spreads poisonous gossip like kudzu. And third, her teacher really is a leering bastard with a schoolgirl fetish, and Wood’s case against him may be an example of two wrongs making a right (or maybe two wrongs making a not-so-officious wrong). Basically, Wood is damaged goods from the start, and before you start casting judgment on her as an evil manipulator, Halim and Siega make you consider where she’s coming from first.

Knowing Skander, I doubt he intended Pretty Persuasion to be some grand moral statement, but it’s as forceful in its way as Dogville and it comes to the same conclusion. Much like Nicole Kidman at the end of Dogville—and read on to the next sentence if you don’t wish to have that ending spoiled here—Wood has decided that there’s nothing redeemable about her situation or about her world, so she razes it to the ground. There’s no great satisfaction for her in doing it, either: It’s a totally nihilistic agenda, which in the end doesn’t dispel her personal demons or light the way to a brighter future. She just leaves a trail of destruction in her wake, and a partially righteous one at that.
After seeing the film yesterday, I now regret not going to Sundance for the premiere, because Pretty Persuasion flies irreverently in the face of everything that festival has come to stand for: the safe, quirky, politically correct, multi-culti Sundance Institute vibe that applauds films like Just Another Girl On The I.R.T. and Smoke Signals could not be less in evidence here. It’s little wonder that all the major studio boutique indies—or “dependents,” as former Lot 47 head Jeff Lipsky called them—ran for the hills, leaving the marginal Samuel Goldwyn to pick up the film. And Goldwyn has certainly adopted one ill-behaved little orphan. (“Other adjectives I’d use to describe it are: bad, naughty, mischievous”… oh, just see the damned thing before I ruin all the good lines.)