Not Another Teen Movie

'Pretty Persuasion' is the brutally honest teen pic that 'Mean Girls' should have been

Let me say right off the bat why I think this is an awesome film: It's exactly like the movie that critics described when they wrote about Mean Girls, but which, for some reason, did not appear on the screen when I actually watched Mean Girls.

Rather, when I saw Mean Girls, I saw a fairly typical, and generally cowardly, teen comedy. While it was definitely amusing, it was also an intensely politically correct film where, in the end, everyone learns an important lesson, and the divisions between the cool kids and the nerdy kids come crashing down, and the world becomes a nicer place.

What sets Pretty Persuasion apart is that it's not safe. There's no effort at producing positive gay role models or stressing the importance of racial diversity and tolerance. In other words, it's not the typical Hollywood pretend-edgy film. It is, rather, an actual edgy film that portrays, in a comic form, some fairly realistically complex characters who don't necessarily match up with modern, liberal morals. It's the kind of film that most parents wouldn't want their teenage daughters to see. In fact, it's the kind of film that most 40-year-old men wouldn't want their teenage girlfriends to see.

The mean girl at the center of Pretty Persuasion is Kimberly Joyce, as played by Evan Rachel Wood. Wood's performance is so nuanced, you'd think she was in charge of making up lies for the Bush administration. She's so good at acting like she's done nothing wrong that she makes Bill Clinton look like Richard Nixon. Her ability to convey both sincerity and sinister intent at the same time leads me to believe that she's been secretly sucking Karl Rove's essence from him when he goes to sleep each day at dawn, upside down, in the cave where he dwells.

Kimberly's plan in life is to become a famous actress. But she knows that to do this, she needs more than slutty attire and the ability to pretend that the sweaty, bald men who run casting agencies are the reincarnation of a non-fat version of Alec Baldwin. She needs scandal.

But Kimberly also understands the benefits of appearing nice. And she knows, having an IQ that was high enough to cause the intelligence-testing computer to wave its arms, shoot smoke from its DVD drive and start shouting "does not compute! does not compute!," that the one thing that succeeds in the world is manipulative, self-centered determination.

So she orchestrates an elaborate plan that involves destroying lives and playing off the weakness of the guileless. And in the end, when her plans come to some sort of fruition ... well, I can't tell you the ending or the plan, because that would spoil it, but the important thing is that this movie has two features that very few films have: It shows the material and emotional consequences of evil, and yet in respecting the tenacity and moral immaturity of teenagers, no one learns a valuable lesson.

It's the way the consequences are shown that really distinguishes Pretty Persuasion. Even though Kimberly is clearly affected by what she's wrought, she continues to rationalize her actions. What happens next, when she does finally mature, is left to the audience to decide. Pretty Persuasion doesn't insult your intelligence by tying things up in a neat little Aesop's fables-type bow.

It's also studded with great performances by great performers. James Woods plays Kimberly's father, and, again in distinction to the usual mass of teen films, he's not only not a nice person at heart; he's a petty racist and sexual narcissist. Woods is so good in this role that you'd think he truly was an aging, wealthy, California lothario who'd like nothing better than to sleep with women who are slightly younger than his own daughter. But his character isn't one-dimensional: In spite of his inability to do the right thing, he knows the difference between right and wrong. This doesn't mean he winds up repenting; rather, he winds up blaming others. The script presents him with a level of complexity rarely seen on celluloid, especially in a comedy, and doubly so in a comedy that, like Pretty Persuasion, is actually funny.

While Woods and Wood are the center of the film, they're tremendously well supported by Ron Livingston, who plays Kimberly's English teacher, Mr. Anderson. Livingston came to prominence in the cult-hit Office Space, but has been underutilized since then. Luckily, Pretty Persuasion offers him a role worthy of his talent. Like the other lead characters, Mr. Anderson is morally complicated. While Kimberly lies to the police in order to get Mr. Anderson arrested for improper sexual behavior with his students, Anderson does, in fact, engage in some mildly improper sexual behavior with his students.

But this subtlety is indicative of the smartness of the film: Anderson is the perfect target for someone like Kimberly, who is intelligent enough to see who would be vulnerable to such false charges. Writer Skander Halim and director Marcos Siega should be commended for writing an intelligent character in an intelligent manner, instead of just giving her the power to invent super-machines or shoot mind-beams from her ponytail.

All of this is neatly presented by cinematographer Ramsey Nickell's unerring camera, which knows when to stay tightly on the well-played faces of the stars and when to soak in the autumnal colors of Kimberly's prep school.

I think Pretty Persuasion's only flaw is in its marketing: People who liked Mean Girls and Heathers will probably enjoy the witty beginning and middle of the film, but be turned off by the difficult ending, and those who want to see something emotionally wrenching are probably not interested in the wry comedy of the opening sequences. Still, I'm pretty sure there's an audience for this film, which hybridizes the best of the recent slew of smart comedies with an authentically human sensibility.