Pretty Persuasion, scripter Skander Halim's tale of a scheming teenage girl, Kimberly Joyce (Evan Rachel Wood), is written with both poison pen and an outrageously accurate ear. Be forewarned that Kimberly takes no prisoners, and that innocent people in her world-and there are not many-suffer extremely short life spans. All teenagers manipulate in their fashion, but none is as clever as Kimberly.
She comes by her narcissism the easy way-both of her parents are monsters. Her mother ignores her, and her oversexed, anti-Semitic, self-absorbed father, Hank (James Woods), is busy cheating on her helpless stepmother Kathy (Jaime King). To show her contempt for the latter, Kimberly constantly accuses her of having sex with the family dog. So often does she berate her stepmother that Kathy barely finds the strength to respond and is losing the will to fight.
Kimberly's two best friends, Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois) and Randa (Adi Schnall), join her in accusing one of the teachers, Percy Anderson (Ron Livingston), of sexual harassment at her private school. The publicity ruins everyone's life but Kimberly's, who through guile and sexual favors weaves a Machiavellian plot that entraps anyone with whom she has the slightest grudge.
Director Marcos Siega pulls no punches displaying this super-cynical world, while extracting brilliant performances from his gifted cast. His set-ups, on the other hand, tend to be pointlessly static, and he requires an awful lot of patience from even sympathetic viewers. Often the camera just sits there in a medium shot, admiring whatever mischief is transpiring. The bloodshed may be off-camera, but on-camera are lacerating private moments painful to watch. Few images in contemporary cinema are as yucky as James Woods in underpants masturbating in full-frontal view.
Evan Rachel Wood's performance is stunning, perfectly tuned to the cunning ploys that enliven the movie's plot. She is blisteringly articulate, but Wood has the rare ability to clue us in to the character's inner life at all times. Pathogenic as Ted Bundy, her quiet demeanor and attractive aplomb mark her as a kind of demonic nun, efficiently going about the devil's work. She is pretty, calculating, enraptured by herself, manipulative and offhandedly lethal. Jane Krakowski also shines as an ambitious local TV reporter (Aren't they all?) who is easily outmaneuvered by Kimberly.
Pretty Persuasion slides from dark farce to tragedy without skipping a beat. The film is as disturbing as it is amusing, reveling in the hypocrisy of its hopelessly dysfunctional world. Siega and Halim earn points for chutzpah and originality, but this is one high-school film no one would want to share with children. Forget "Happy Days." Pretty Persuasion may be too nasty in its depiction of the sex and power struggles that infest many an educational institution.