Yet another sociopathic high school vixen wreaks havoc in “Pretty Persuasion,” an exercise in bad taste that takes itself just seriously enough to be offensive. Overlong feature from director Marcos Siega and scenarist Skander Halim plays like such inglorious prior teen black comedies as “Drop Dead Gorgeous” and “Jawbreaker,” albeit with delusions of profound social commentary a la “American Beauty.” Slick veneer and saleable thematic elements should open some commercial doors, but critical response is sure to render small screen gigs the more rewarding outlet.
Pic depends on the audience believing that no one has yet seen through 15-year-old antiheroine Kimberly (Evan Rachel Wood, from “Thirteen”), though she’s arrogant, rude and manipulative. An aspiring actress, she’s first glimpsed undergoing a degrading audition for a trashy TV serial, then posing as Queen of the Campus as she takes Middle East-emigrant Randa (Adi Schnall) under her wing at their tony Beverly Hills private school.
All Kimberly’s generosities look like setups for a backstabbing punchline, and indeed she does occasionally let slip her grotesque racial attitudes — many picked up from her crass business-tycoon dad (James Woods), whose much younger third wife (Jaime King) she openly baits.
Yet nobody notices they’re being used, least of all Kim’s “best friend” Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois), who now dates dreamboat Troy (Stark Sands), who protag broke up with some months earlier.
For different reasons all three girls loathe persnickety English-cum-drama teacher Mr. Anderson (Ron Livingston), whose panting at under-age booty is not well concealed. Kimberly decides the trio will fix his wagon by publicly accusing him of molesting all of them.
Among those roped into unknowing complicity is ambitious TV-news reporter Emily Klein (Jane Krakowski). There’s also Roger Nicholl (Danny Comden), the high school law teacher drafted as Mr. A.’s unfunny, inept counsel. Late arrival of notorious top-tier trial lawyer (Robert Joy) changes the proceedings’ course drastically.
Between courtroom sequences, flashbacks limn various facets of what actually happened, with few, if any surprises.
The cartoonish, improbable script lacks a single credible character relationship. It might have worked played as over-the-top satire if the dialogue were truly clever instead of meant to be shocking; even sheer outrageousness needs a context in which to fly.
Amazingly, however, “Pretty Persuasion” treats its crudities — sexual and otherwise — with increasing seriousness as it goes on … and on. Some of the most ridiculous situations are played with shocking-expose earnestness. The distasteful incorporation of school shootings, teen suicide and other sober issues into catch-all narrative underlines the gap between its delusions of thematic grandeur and the depthless result onscreen.
When poor little psychotic rich girl Kimberly at last realizes the hollowness of her triumph, the camera holds on her longer than it did on Garbo at the end of “Queen Christina.”
No one is seen to best advantage here. Wood copes as well as possible as a never-credible adolescent femme fatale, whose sexuality the film gleefully exploits. Other young thesps do OK by one-dimensional roles. The older cast members are (or ought be) more embarrassed.
Widescreen lensing and other tech contribs are glossy.