Depicting high school as a microcosm of society is nothing particularly new (see Heathers and Election for starters), but Marcos Siega’s Pretty Persuasion takes this tactic one step further by casting the cruel shenanigans at an upscale 90210 school as a metaphor for virtually everything in contemporary American life. Issues of race, sex, gender identity, intolerance, misogyny, materialism, celebrity, hypocrisy, the political debates over Columbine and the war in Iraq, and the turbulent relationships between children and parents, teachers and students, friends, and lovers all intertwine in screenwriter Skander Halim’s satirical hothouse, which charts enfant terrible Kimberly Joyce (Evan Rachel Wood) and her sexual harassment case—with help from ditzy friend Britney (Elisabeth Harnois) and innocent new Arab acolyte Randa (Adi Schnall)—against skeevy English and drama teacher Mr. Anderson (Ron Livingston). Kimberley is a chilly sex kitten with a conniving, razor-sharp mind, and her quest to become an actress entails a scheme that plays off of virtually every explosive topic cramming today’s newspapers, including sexual abuse, neglectful parents, prejudice against Arabs and Jews, and an entertainment arena that cherishes shallow objectification and superficiality above all else.
Halim’s brazenly un-p.c. script, helmed with straightforward panache by music video vet Siega, touches on these myriad subjects with breakneck indecency, such as Kimberley informing Randa “I respect all races, but I’m glad I’m white,” her father (James Woods) ranting about a “coughing kike” (“There’s a big difference between bona fide racism and speaking the truth,” he says) and scenes involving porn, anal sex, lesbianism, blackmail, pedophilic desire, bulimia, and stereotypical caricatures of horny athletes, bimbos, and nerds. Humor is derived largely via confrontational bluntness, and though many set pieces are undone by last-second slip-ups—such as a dysfunctional family dinner between Kimberley, her dad, and his new trophy wife that ends on a pathetic “which of our cellphones is ringing?” gag—Rachel Wood holds the film’s scattershot focus together through the strength of her icy, deceitful charm. As with South Park (which makes a brief audio cameo), everyone is indicted in Halim’s equal-opportunity critique of the diverse, divided country, from the media and educators to the president himself, whose Saddam-toppling campaign is skewered both by Kimberley’s faux-sincere references to “Operation Iraqi Freedom” (which claimed her brother) and the film’s final equation of said crusade with Kimberley’s own duplicitous machinations (which she climactically justifies by stating “Every war has its causalities”).
Ambition, however, is both Pretty Persuasion‘s finest and weakest attribute, lending its parody a wide-ranging, take-no-prisoners vitality as well as a glib thinness that eventually wears out its snarky welcome. After a barrage of audacious insolence highlighted by Kimberley’s anti-Semitic rant at a fund-raising event orchestrated to foster a spirit of multiculturalism (“At least my dad isn’t a money-grabbing Jew shyster!”), the action slows to a crawl as the court case against Mr. Anderson resorts to obsessing over tepid flashback revelations about shady Kimberley and company. Worse, though, is the didactic irony that Halim ultimately falls back upon as a means of wagging his finger at America. Kimberley’s ascension to stardom via notoriety is a lame paradoxical twist about as subtle as the film’s decision to verbalize its primary (and already clearly graspable) theme by having a suicidal student scrawl “We are all sinners” on a blackboard while forcing Randa’s immigrant Arab parents to scream about the U.S.‘s “moral decay.” As tsk-tsk moralizing becomes the norm, so Pretty Persuasion turns into a pretty unpersuasive lecture. Nonetheless, if such last act preachiness severely dulls the film’s incisiveness, Siega’s black comedy does contain at least one valuable lesson for those still navigating those treacherous teenage years: Always make sure you know whose boyfriend you’re stealing.