I usually cringe when going to see feature film debuts from directors who have been previously limited to music videos. So I was more than just a little surprised by the quality of Pretty Persuasion, the debut film from Marcos Siega. It is the best feature directorial debut I have seen since Rod Lurie’s “Deterrence” over six years ago. While Siega had help in the form of a sharp script from writer Skander Halim, Siega’s final product is the work of a director who will be around for the long haul.
Persuasion stars Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen, The Upside of Anger) as Kimberly Joyce, a 15-year-old student at an expensive and exclusive private school in Beverly Hills. And while she may look as sweet as a Wonka Bar, she is anything but. The sole child of a divorced couple, and currently living with her father, Kimberly is determined to make it as a professional actress and achieve fame and fortune at any cost. Her best friend Brittany shares the same dreams but perhaps not quite the same level of determination, and the newest student in the school, Randa (newcomer Adi Schnall), an hijab (headdress) wearing Arab transplant who dreams only of passing English and pleasing her parents, who are spending a fortune to keep her in the upscale academy. However, all three of the girls are having issues with their English and Drama teacher, Mr. Anderson (Ron Livingston), and just how serious those issues are becomes clear when the trio file a sexual harassment lawsuit against him.
A lawsuit of this type, at a high-priced Beverly Hills private school, would draw massive media attention even if the Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart trials were going on at the same time, and this is no exception. This trial gets particular media interest since there was a reporter doing a fluff feature on the school present when the lawsuit was filed, and that reporter (Jane Krakowski) immediately senses this is the kind of story that leads to promotion and opportunity for someone like her.
The question here is who is exploiting whom. Kimberly doesn’t discriminate. She exploits everyone she can. Maybe not equally, but that is only because she is able to manipulate some people further than others, and she will use them all to accomplish her goals. Yes, goals. She has more than just the achieving of fame and fortune as goals. Kimberly is complicated and has several agendas and plans.
Will the lawsuit succeed? Will it fail? Whatever happens, it is Kimberly who is manipulating the players involved, much like a master puppeteer — and all of the marionettes are going to move exactly as she has planned. This is all part of a master plan and while all three of the girls have a stake in the outcome, the only certainty is that you know Kimberly will get what she wants. Will the other two girls be as successful is a question that can be answered only by being there when all of Kimberly’s plans come to completion.
Siega is the kind of director who manages to let the actors actually perform and act while on-screen, something some directors can’t manage to do because they are too busy focused on getting the action just right. While this is not an action film, that did not relieve Siega of the challenge of maintaining tension while allowing the actors to shine and he achieves both goals. The result is a taut 104 minutes of film where you are either laughing at the dark humor of Halim’s script, marveling at how it attacks and skewers things that go way beyond the politically correct limits of most films, and yet all seems plausible in the world of high-priced private education. I found it believable and I worked in a very expensive private school near Beverly Hills for more than 15 years.
Evan Rachel Wood delivers a breakout performance as Kimberly, the maniacal manipulator who will do anything and everything to get you to do her bidding. James Woods will have your sides splitting in his all too brief appearances as her father with his acerbic, acid wit. Is he bigoted or does he just hate everyone? Go and see for yourself, but don’t sip from your soda when he’s on-screen or you might end up spitting on your neighbor.
This is a must-see movie. One of the best movies I’ve seen all year. Persuade yourself to stop off and see Pretty Persuasion.