underrated dark teen comedy ‘pretty persuasion’ is more relevant than ever in 2017
The 2005 Beverly Hills high-school movie, starring Evan Rachel Wood, is a bitingly hilarious satire on American life that arrived 12 years ahead of its time.
still from 'pretty persuasion'
If Satan took a BuzzFeed quiz, which mean girl would he get? Regina George, she of the awe-inducing right hook and three-way phone call? Jawbreaker's Courtney Shayne, whose nickname is "the devil in heels"? Kathryn Merteuil from Cruel Intentions, who likes to play Russian roulette with God's wrath by keeping her coke stash in her rosary? The answer is none of the above. The greatest mean girl of all time is, in fact, Kimberly Joyce, the soft-spoken, angel-faced, ice-in-her-veins protagonist of Pretty Persuasion, a criminally underrated and largely forgotten dark teen comedy from 2005.
When it first came out, Pretty Persuasion was billed as just another diet Heathers. But its societal critique cuts far deeper, and is far uglier. The movie is a revenge thriller in which the avenger is a teenage girl who uses America's hypocrisies against itself. In her arsenal: The unconvincing ceremony of political correctness in a society intended for white men. The Faustian bargain offered women who profit from internalized misogyny. The sexualization of girls condemned for being sexual. In 2017, with a presidency built on white supremacy, a first daughter who flagrantly co-opts feminism, and red pillers going mainstream, Pretty Persuasion's sneering worldview rings truer than ever.
Few people agreed with that stance in 2005. The venomous satire, directed by Marcos Siega and written by Skander Halim, opened to polarizing (mostly negative) reviews and a pitiful box office return. Critics slammed the uneven mix of comedy and satire, the misanthropic script, and the cynical plot: a manipulative 15-year-old who attends an exclusive private school in Beverly Hills convinces her friends to join her in falsely accusing their English teacher of sexual assault for revenge. Even the nice reviews called it "enjoyably bitchy" and "a dark teen comedy that tries way too hard to be a dark teen comedy." Also, mercilessly, "a Young Adult writer's stab at a Bret Easton Ellis novel."
Looking back, though, Pretty Persuasion was simply released 12 years too early. Things critics thought were far-fetched in 2005 are staples of our present. In our post-Gone Girl times, Kimberly Joyce is the kind of female villain-protagonist we secretly, or not so secretly, root for. Like Rosamund Pike doing Amy as a Stepford ice-WASP, Evan Rachel Wood plays her Kimberly scheming but subtle, a political wife selling poisoned cupcakes at a charity bake sale. She ranks the races she'd want to be if she couldn't be white, asks her stepmother if she fucks dogs, and even commits perjury — all with a pageant-toddler smize and a voice like a sleep CD. Like Amy with her cool-girl schtick, Kimberly is a quick-change artist with a suitcase full of loathsome male fantasies. She's a giggly, baguette-dropping French bimbo for a sleazy TV audition. She's a straight-A babysitter-next-door for the judge and jury. Her entire plan capitalizes on the "girl who cries rape" trope thrown at Kesha, Bill Cosby's accusers, and Emma Sulkowicz.
But can we blame her? She is weaponizing what she's been force-fed her entire life. She watches her father treat her stepmother like crap and overhears him telling a phone sex operator he'd like to use her ass as a bowling ball. Although her teacher is innocent of these specific accusations, Kimberly is the subject of his "locker room talk" with another creeper teacher. At home, he makes his wife wear a copy of her school uniform and recite an essay she wrote in detention. Her boyfriend dumps her because she was pressured into having anal sex with her ex, saying he doesn't want another guy's "sloppy seconds" from a "dirty little whore." With an avowed "pussy-grabber" in the White House, voted in by men who discuss how to trick women into sleeping with them in a subreddit created by a state representative, it's hard not to admire the carnage Kimberly unleashes as revenge.
The problem is, as she tells her best friend, "every war has its casualties." The nature of benefiting from internalized misogyny and white supremacy is such that it runs on the subjugation of others. The lingua franca of Pretty Persuasion's trashy, celebrity spawn-filled Beverly Hills consists of racist jokes, racist rants, and racist thought experiments. When called to address this, the school headmaster's answer is, "We will not tolerate racial slurs at Roxberry. You can use them at any other time — at home, at the mall, at rock and roll concerts." To stay on top, Kimberly draws on the same strategy used by today's faux feminists and powerful conservative women. She takes a Muslim exchange student from the Middle East under her wing, teaches her an anti-Arab joke, and then throws her under the bus once she's served her purpose. It's the brand of white feminism we've grown so weary of in 2017, used, for example, by white actresses who preach Hollywood diversity but then take roles from women of color. In the same vein as Tomi Lahren's rent-a-racist drag, she parrots vile sentiments she doesn't believe in to jumpstart her agenda. Her silence in the face of her neglectful (and eerily Trump-like) father's long, racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic rants brings to mind the complicity of (who else?) Ivanka.
It's a hideous and damning self-portrait of America that goes down smoother than honey. Pretty Persuasion is, after all, a teen comedy, and Siega and Halim hide its vicious condemnation beneath a palette suggestive of a goth Wes Anderson and a downpour of savage one-liners. If you've ever been a teenage girl, it's hard not to cheer on Kimberly's scorched-earth response to sexism, even if she ultimately becomes a part of the system she tried to screw. And she's compulsively likable as only the best villains are. How can she not be when we learn things like the following: "Last year, her freshman year, she took an IQ test, obliterated all school records. Nobody believed it, they figured she was cheating. So they made her take it again. She scored even higher. They made her take it a third time. Guess what happened on the third time? Her test broke the computer...She penciled in those little circles to spell fuck you."
But the most effective satires laugh with you before laughing at you, the shame of self-recognition dawning gradually like a bad trip instead of a freight train. In the last scene, after tallying up all the ruined lives in her wake, Kimberly allows us a peek inside her brain. "It's like the world is this orchestra and I'm the conductor," she says. And in 2017, it's crystal clear we're the ones she's playing.
Text Evelyn Wang
Still from Pretty Persuasion