The problem with making black-lacquered high school satire is this: Heathers came out in 1989, and it pretty much did the trick. There's always room for an excellent addition to the genre, and in 1999, it appeared in the form of Alexander Payne's Election, a film blessed both with a sweet budding lesbian and the steely-eyed, hilarious Reese Witherspoon. Now we're faced with Pretty Persuasion, a film that aspires to join the company of its predecessors -- smart, funny, satires that skewered the hypocrisy and cruelty of high school life.
But it won't. For starters, Pretty Persuasion commits a fatal error: It forgets to side with the students. Evan Rachel Wood's Kimberly Joyce is 100 percent psychopath, a scheming mastermind whose machinations reach ever further into her community, drawing in larger crowds as the film goes on. At first, her sexual precocity, expansive vocabulary and wickedly cool demeanor are enough to entertain -- mean girls have their attractions, after all, and this one is a queen bee's queen bee. In fact, as long as we're not certain just how wicked she is (and the movie tries to keep us guessing), there's reason to watch. But when Kimberly's stunts are revealed in all of their complexity, we're left with nearly nothing. About whom were we supposed to care?
Certainly not the parents. Kimberly's father, played with debauched gusto by James Woods, is a racist lout who masturbates and does lines in the living room. Mom is largely out of the picture, spelling Kimberly's name incorrectly and getting her age wrong on her birthday card. Kimberly's stepmother (Jaime King) is a Barbie doll. Her half-brother was killed in Iraq. It's certainly no wonder that Kimberly is damaged; when we first meet her family, we don't hesitate to leap to her side. But we can't stay there for long.
Then there are her friends. Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois) is a milquetoast popular girl who dates Kimberly's former boyfriend, a situation that obviously compromises the girls' relationship, though they pretend otherwise. Randa (Adi Schnall), meanwhile, is a new student, a shy and obedient Muslim girl who wears a veil and who -- in a film that's supposed to buck stereotype -- is almost exactly that, speaking in stilted sentences without contractions and tucking her chin into her neck. (She commits a single act of defiance, which rounds her slightly.) Because Randa is so limited, she's unsympathetic, even when tragedy strikes. Brittany is the closest we get to someone who bridges our experience with the world of the film, and even she is a weak link (sad to say, she's a little dense).
Kimberly and her friends attend a prestigious private school in LA, where, the administration boasts, "A lot of very important people send their very important kids." Though dead-set on becoming a famous actress, Kimberly isn't having any luck at casting calls. So when a local television reporter (Jane Krakowski) arrives to do a fluff piece on the school, Kimberly seizes the opportunity. Along with Brittany and Randa, she accuses the English teacher (Ron Livingston) of sexual harassment. The drama erupts into a media circus, and the case, against all odds, swiftly goes to trial.
Were the girls harassed, even assaulted? It remains a possibility long into the script -- which, by the way, should move far faster than it does. (Part of the art of satire is keeping up the pace.) We eventually learn the whole truth; then, for anyone who missed it, Kimberly offers a summary.
To her credit, Wood (star of the 2003 surprise hit Thirteen) does an excellent job, but her character just can't carry an entire movie. Heathers had Veronica (Winona Ryder), a young woman with warm intelligence and spicy pique, whose alienation and discontent made sense; more important, Veronica retained a vulnerability that allowed us to follow her to the end of the movie. Election's Tammy Meltzer had much of the same, and even Witherspoon's villainous Tracy Flick was sympathetic in her underlying pain. But Kimberly is all steel and glass, shiny and impressive, but no more than cold comfort.
Pretty Persuasion's other damning flaw is that it can't decide on a level of sincerity. Its comedy is very dark (and sometimes funny), while its tragedy feels oddly light. It wants to be a biting satire and a serious statement about quite a few ills in contemporary society, and it ends up dithering somewhere between the two. That's a shame for the actors, especially Wood and Woods, whose commitment is impressive. There's just no rising above this troubled script.