Film Review: The Pretty One

Predictable plotting weighs down an intriguing premise.

There’s a certain type of movie that lends itself to group viewing. This type of movie is best enjoyed as the pretext for a get-together, in a space where most of the overlapping dialogue takes place off-screen. This type of movie is inoffensive, fast-paced, and one whose familiar plot and characters ensure that, should you miss a few scenes or key lines—because you were talking too loudly, or had to leave the room to refill your drink, or got distracted by Facebook or e-mail or your friend’s Facebook or e-mail, or something—you can easily pick up the thread at whichever point you choose to tune back in. Teen girls are one target demographic for this type of movie. They call it a Sleepover Movie.

The Pretty One, the first feature by writer-director Jenée LaMarque, fits the mold of a Sleepover Movie with the cozy comfort of a Snuggie. It begins with an interesting premise: Laurel and Audrey (both played by Zoe Kazan, very watchable as a kewpie-eyed odd duck who errs just this side of precious) are twin sisters at opposite ends of the social/fashion spectrum. Laurel is introverted and taken for weird, an artist who never left home and who never cuts her straggly hair, who spends her days catering to and helping her widowed father (John Carroll Lynch) paint copies of famous masterworks. She’s talented, but not very good at crafting faithful replications—you know, at being someone she’s not. Audrey, on the other hand, lives in L.A., is bubbly, extroverted, and sports a trendy haircut and clothes. When Audrey comes home for the twins’ birthday, she convinces Laurel to ditch her small-town digs once and for all and join her in The Big City, where self-actualization, much like the chimeric Wizard of Oz, is sure to await. But before they go, Laurel’s outdated look needs a serious overhaul (“Makeover!” Audrey whispers with a glee well understood by all those weaned on “Project Runway,” “America’s Next Top Model” and the makeover montage scene in The Devil Wears Prada. This is the signal for errant viewers to rejoin the fold.). Laurel acquiesces without much prodding and creepily if understandably opts to cut her hair just like Audrey. This leads to some confusion when, on the drive home from the hair salon, the girls get in a nasty car crash that claims Audrey’s life and leaves no trace of her body. Newly stylish Laurel is thus mistaken for her twin sister (the hair makes all the difference as the identifying tipoff) by her father and his girlfriend. Instead of correcting their mistake, however, Laurel chooses to embrace it. She assumes Audrey’s identity and leaves for L.A. to live Audrey’s glamorous life.

Unfortunately, this promising, darkly comic setup quickly takes a turn for the predictable. Laurel falls for the smart, quirky guy (Jake Johnson) at whom Audrey had scoffed, overcomes initial awkwardness to succeed in Audrey’s real estate sales job, and grows to question all she’s gained once her conscience inevitably gets the better of her. The tone of The Pretty One vacillates between rom-comic and dramatic, though even during its weightier moments of grief and mourning its touch is ever a light one.

The fingerprints belong to LaMarque, who makes an uneven feature debut in her capacity as both writer and director. As the former, LaMarque has penned a script that fails to live up to, or perhaps more accurately fill out, the potential of its story, featuring as it does a cast of 2D character types and stock dialogue. Poor Ron Livingston as Audrey’s married lover is in all of three scenes and, lacking much to say, has little else to do but stare lustily, vacantly, or actualize his jerkiness by punching a guy in the face. Laurel/Audrey’s exposition and emotional outbursts sound so familiar as to ring almost nostalgic, if one happened to long for a simpler age of rote speech. “After Mom died, you just left. Somebody has to take care of everything,” and “Yes, let’s go inside. God forbid we should say anything we’re feeling out loud!” are typical examples of The Pretty One’s lines.

But as a director, LeMarque has a meticulous eye. Her shots are framed with an almost Wes Anderson-like attention to detail. Her symmetrical images, of people on opposite sides of the screen and paired paintings, not only reinforce the film’s central conflict of a young woman struggling to feel whole, but are a pleasure to watch unfold. The film’s color palette of peach and pink hues does not mesh with those striving-for-heavier moments, but the overall effect is a confectionary treat. You could watch The Pretty One with the sound off and still closely follow its story and conflict, which is both a testament to LeMarque’s visual skills as a director and a check on her first full-length script. (She’s previously written and directed two short films, Spoonful and Happy Deathday.)

Both director and leading lady are wasted on what could have been dynamic but ultimately manifests as featherweight material. The Pretty One is enjoyable enough, as Sleepover Movies tend to be, but then, who simply aspires to background din?