Friday, March 10, 2006

Pretty Persuasion

I've found that writing up the films I've been watching recently has helped me find some new layers of depth and really understand the director's intention in creating the film. When I do my own films, I really consider the thematic implication of everything that happens, and I'd imagine if you're doing a feature, you're going to think about every decision you make and why things go the way they do in the story. There's social implications to every choice you make, intentional or not they're there, and as a result, every work is something of a social document. That's why I'm planning to do more pieces in the style of my reviews of Visitor Q, and The Doom Generation, reviews that are more about analyzing what ended up on screen than just saying whether or not the movie was good.

So, Pretty Persuasion is one of these. It's not a film that I loved, but I think there's plenty of interesting stuff to discuss within it. If I was pitching this film to a studio, I would describe it as "Mean Girls...on crack!" It fits right into that cliquey high school girl subgenre that's usually great fodder for dark comedy, as in Heathers and the afforementioned Mean Girls.

This movie certainly owes a debt to Heathers, but that film was completely crippled by the ridiculously ugly clothing and production design. It may have been in style at the time, but you've got to wonder what they were thinking. Heathers did some bold stuff, but it's at heart a really simple story of a boy and girl in love, there's the sense that the murders are just an exaggerated version of the sort of pranks that appear in Mean Girls. Both Mean Girls and Heathers had an essentially likable character at the center, and even when we started to sour on her, we always had someone even worse, the queen bee, to look to and see that our heroine isn't really that bad.

This film changes things by focusing on the queen bee, Kimberly, who is expertly portrayed by Evan Rachel Wood. Between this and her performance in Thirteen, it's clear that she's the best teen actress around right now, taking on challenging parts and totally nailing them. The final scene of the film is a really stunning piece of acting, it falls entirely on her to sell the emotional close of the film, and she pulls it off with aplomb. I think she's got really good things ahead of her, and hopefully she'll continue to choose this artsier filmmaking over more stereotypical teen material. I never want to see her at the end of a slasher's knife.

Much like both Visitor Q and The Doom Generation, this is a confrontational film, assaulting the viewer with taboo subject matter, here voiced by teen girls, adding to the inappropriateness of it. If you apply real world rules to the film, it's a bit tough to accept, but if you consider it in light of the heightened reality concept, it makes sense. Basically, every action is pushed beyond what it would be in our world as a way of confronting the viewer with the reality of the behavior.

So, when Kimberly first shows Randa around the school, she goes on a variety of politically incorrect rants, which I thought were really funny. The film works because it puts us in an odd place with respect to our protagonist. We don't like her, if you were to meet her in real life, you'd want to stay far away, but the entertainment of the film comes from watching her flout societal conventions and go on inappropriate, and at times hilarious rants, such as her discussion of her racial preferences.

The film is aware of its position with regards to other films in the genre, and as a result, it has to up the ante. That's why she has to be so extreme in discussing the other kids in school, just being mean isn't enough anymore, she needs the racial slurs, or the discussion about fucking the dog, to make us really understand how messed up she is.

The basic thesis of the film seems to be that society evaluates young women based on their looks, and in the mass of identical blondes seen in the first scene, it's tough to stand out. The fact that all these people are gathered for a casting session shows how these people have molded themselves to fit the Hollywood image, however, as Kimberly makes clear, just fitting that image is not enough, she needs something to set her apart.

This is what leads to her elaborate scheme to shame Anderson and find her own fame. Her friends provide an interesting counterpoint to Kimberly. Kimberly expresses jealousy at Britney's blonde hair and blue eyes, which combined with the constant derogatory talk about Jews would seem to construct American society as fascist, enforcing certain standards in the same way that the Nazis did, though this time the people hurt themselves. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Randa who is totally exempt from traditional notions of beauty because her headdress. If these other girls define themselves by her appearance, Randa is someone who really is about what's on the inside. Yet, she seems relatively empty on the inside, in this film, female sexuality is a critical weapon, and because she doesn't have it, Randa has very little agency.

Kimberly is consciously trying to put herself beyond traditional morality, freely using whatever is at her disposal, most notably her sexuality, as a way of getting what she wants, while at the same time playing up her young age and innocence when it can work to her advantage. This dichotomy is most evident in the scene in the court room, where we cut between the two different presentations of the letter.

While this act works with older people, she winds up in trouble with people her own age. She clearly is jealous of Britney, if for no other reason than that she has Troy. What drove Troy away from her is the deviant sexuality in her past. She can act nonchalant about everything, and it may not matter to her, but she has to deal with others, and Troy is clearly not so accepting of her choices. Troy claims that he was always in love with Britney, and considering her slightly dim demeanor, and blonde hair, it's implied that he's attracted to the innocent front she presents. Kimberly is completely in control of every sexual situation she's in, but someone like Troy needs to be in control himself, he could not handle having a girlfriend who's more sexually experienced than him. So, she's not really lying when she says that she broke up with Troy because he wasn't ready to have sex with her, she changes the axis of causation, but the basic power relationship remains the same.

Over the course of the film, Kimberly schemes to turn Britney into her. This begins with the hair dying, and culminates when she outs Britney as a lying schemer, leading to her breakup with Troy. She knows that Troy is someone with a very traditional sense of morality, and through her plan, Kimberly is able to tarnish Britney with something that she can never get rid of. The film is all about people who made choices that are wrong in some way, and then have to live with the consequences of them.

For Kimberly, it's the anal sex, which dooms her chances with Troy. For Anderson, it's the skirt, indulging in a fantasy version of an illegal act that means his wife leaves him. For Britney and Randa, it's going along with Kimberly's plan, and for the reporter, it's the decision to sleep with Kimberly and engage in the exact crime that she's reporting about with outrage. Doing something bad locks you into a situation you might not want to be in, and forces you to live with the consequences.

Kimberly's utterly selfish view of the world seems to be largely motivated by her parents. Her mother will barely talk to her, and her father is impressing his racist viewpoints into her, his cold, selfishness leading to the same behavior in his daughter. The only time we Kimberly letting down her guard is when legtimately trying to reach out to her parents, and she always winds up rejected. What's so tough about the failure of the case is that in her father's treatment of her, she can see a reflection of how she treated her friends, thinking of them only in terms of how they could serve her.

The film's ending leaves us with some conflicted emotions. Kimberly confesses her utter manipulativeness to Britney and alienates her only remaining friend, and watchhing TV, she begins to break down, recognizing that she's now alone, and her greatest aspiration is to be this dumb female on a TV show. That's what she did it all for, that's what Randa died for, and it seems like the role on the show is as hollow as the life that she's leading. What lends the scene irony is the fact that as she's at her lowest ebb, feeling that she's lost the part, we know that the producers are going to recast, and that in fact her plan did work. So, after the film we could easily see her returning to happiness upon learning she's been cast, but it seems more like she's going to take a serious look at the direction of her life and the way she treats the people around her.

I liked the film, but didn't love it, and there's a lot of issues I have with it. The biggest one is in the revelation that Kimberly did all this because Troy broke up with her. Because Troy is such a cipher, a generic pretty boy, it seems odd that such a powerful girl should act out all to get back at him. She even admits in the movie that it's a cliche, and it leaves you with a conflicted feeling, the idea that the only reason this really empowered female character acted was to get back at her friend for stealing her man. Now, you could argue that the film is in fact commenting on the way that society turns girls into objects, who seek to define themselves through their relationship with men, and that's a valid take on the film, but at the same time, on the surface level, what you see is this incredibly powerful character basically reduced to just a jealous girl at the end.

Another big issue I have with the film is the structure. I think the flashback stuff was unnecessarily convluted, largely because the one month gap happens for no reason, and just strands us in this point in the future, where apparently nothing has changed, except for Britney's hair color. Eventually we figure everything out, and obviously some of the flashback structure is essential to preserve the suspense of the trial, but I think it could have been done in a less clumsy way.

Part of what might have hurt it is that after one month later, the film feels very different. I feel like the film has too much plot. The most fun part of the film is just watching this character move through the school, interacting with Randa was great fun. The film's greatest strength is its main character, and the big problem with the second chunk is that there's so much plot to get through, we can't just enjoy hanging out with her. The whole trial thing takes away from what we really want to see, Kimberly moving through her world.

Obviously, the trial contributes a lot thematically, presenting the key example of Kimberly using her sexuality as a weapon, but it's too long and there's just not enough entertainment within. Also, there's the sense that some of the content is there for shock value, something that's amplified by constantly harping on how the character is only fifteen.

I was happy to see Tina Holmes a.k.a Maggie from Six Feet Under, even if she only had a couple of lines in the whole film. And Stark Sands, the guy who played Troy, was also on Six Feet Under, as the boy Claire meets at Aunt Sarah's in season two.

Ultimately, this is an entertaining film, but one that falls prety to some contradictions within itself. Is it a film about how women can empower themselves through their sexuality, or is it saying that ultimately all the actions that a woman takes are in an attempt to get a man? I like to think that Kimberly is more interested in acting out this scenario, viewing her world as a laboratory in which to test emotional responses, as she struggles to remain above emotion herself, ultimately succumbing to her humanity at the end.


gum drop said...

Hi Patrick, I just watched Pretty Persuasion and was looking for critical reviews and came to your blog! I was quite surprised that movie did not evoke many reviews. Your post was very astute and drove home alot of points

muebles said...

I believe everyone must look at this.

Anonymous said...

she represents the coorporations, the muslim girl represents the innocent arabs dying in the war. the boyfriend is morality and the jew is israel coming to save the teacehr...or the us government or somethign along those lines

Anonymous said...

Hi, I just finished watching this movie and I looked for your blog because I couldnt understand the so clear now! Theres a lot of innapropriate language but it is a good, real movie to show teenagers.

ali a said...

Randa's headdress is a visual metaphor of female sexual oppression. Because she is so oppressed, she doesn't have much of a personality and is an easy prey for Kimberly as Kimberly is an alpha female and thus becomes the dominant figure in Randa's school life.
Note: Randa is a girl who does not embrace her female sexuality and thus repeats it’s what’s on the inside and not the outside (i.e. become a doctor to help people as opposed to something superficial as becoming an actress) without truly believing this. As she has not been given the liberty to explore beliefs, and just repeats them, she is very easily manipulated.
In parallel we have Britney who does not wear a headdress, and seems to be a liberated American woman, but wears an invisible headdress. She demonstrates female oppression within a culture that boasts of the liberated woman. She may seem more opinionated than Randa, but in reality, she and Randa are the same. The main difference being that Britney is a slave to her appearance (her obvious disgust at the idea of consuming fattening Twinkies).
It was very clever to have a girl who we can visually identify as oppressed side-by-side with a girl who visiually identifies as un-oppressed but in reality is. Neither have a personality and are mentally enslaved to either constantly disregarding the burden of appearance and constantly maintaining the ideal appearance.
Britney is an extension of dominant Kimberly: she has the same dreams and says similarly inappropriate things as Kimberly, but never to the same extent of inadequacy because it's "her circle's" talk, and despite having a boyfriend, feels dirty when she masturbates.
Kimberly reminds me somewhat of Cruel Intention's Catherine in that she wishes to freely explore her sexuality but is labelled a slut and is seen as something filthy and less worthy than the innocent female (aka Britney akaCecile).
The slut then opts for dragging the innocent down to her level so that the object of her "affections" (who broke up with the slut previously for being a slut) breaks up with the innocent because she is no longer innocent. It is another critic to women and how they tear people, mainly other women, down when society labels them as sluts for freely expressing their sexuality. Once you have sex you have crossed a line which you cannot uncross. So the only thing to do is to make others cross it and come to the side you’re standing.
Anderson is a grown man who has a sexually active wife but still has a fetish for the innocent school girl. While he never acted out his fantasies on an underage girl (that we know of) the possible scenario tarnishes his reputation. Kimberly demonstrates how innocence can only last so long, and while boys her age may value this, in a few years it will be meaningless to value this. And she should therefore not be punished for losing her innocence earlier than the other girls.
Another interesting parallel is Kimberly and the Bel-Air shooter. Britney is disgusted by his actions and cannot understand him – his disregard to human life. Kimberly, however, feels that she does understand him and his actions for destroying a handful of so many worthless, annoying people. Towards the end of the movie, after confessing her grand plan to Britney, she sees her ditzy French girl role and then watches the shooter speak and sees his indifference. He shot people, just “bam bam bam”. Randa’s distraught father claiming he was looking for the American dream but only found a nightmare followed by an audio of Southpark mocking death “you killed Kenny, you bastard” followed by her air-head French girl role, a role which ended in Randa’s death and her friendship with Britney’s termination. I guess she felt how she didn’t really accomplish anything worthwhile. There was nothing to laugh at. She orchestrated a grand plan, exploited her sexuality and her innocence, made Britney the same as her, but the emptiness within her is still there. Everything still means nothing. So she cries.

soah whoami said...

@ali a ... when the comment is better than the post. One thing i would like to add is that sex and sexuality can be on both sides of a metaphor. In this case, I see people claiming that Randa's hairdress is a symbol of her repressed sexuality. I would say it is a symbol of her repressed personality. As for Kimberly obsessing over Troy, I think Troy represents the "acceptable / norm", so what she actually tries to do is prove to this righteous society full of Troy's that their concept of innocence (aka Brittany) is not real. By turning her into a version of herself, Kimberly unmasks this fake innocence. And the whole society can no longer reject or blame on Kimberly. Despite her numerous twisted sides, Kimberly wants to be accepted and acknowledged (ex. from her parents). Tired of the rejection and of the fake, pressuring society she crosses the line. I'm not justifying her, just explaining her motivations.

Lemonjuice said...

Can we talk about Randa's suicide? Am I the only one who felt that maybe she actually was molested? That scene with she and Anderson in the detention side room was very suspicious and strongly convincing that something might have actually happened there. And for those fixated on the head garb, she did remove it before she wrote that phrase on the board and killed herself. To liberate herself maybe?