The Pretty One is a coming-of-age romantic drama with a welcome dash of perversity. Laurel (Zoe Kazan) is a painfully awkward young woman stuck in an adolescent limbo worrying over her father, Frank (John Carroll Lynch), and stewing in her general feelings of inferiority to her polished and extroverted twin sister, Audrey (Kazan), who leads a presumably sexy and exciting life in the city. Audrey soon blows into town with the aim of liberating Laurel and that’s just what inadvertently happens when (spoilers herein) the twins get into a terrible auto accident that kills Audrey and leaves Laurel with a head injury that triggers a brief spell of amnesia. That amnesia quickly lifts, however, and Laurel discovers that everyone thinks that it was her who died, a mistake she doesn’t feel too compelled to correct after (mistakenly) hearing what her friends and family truly thought of Laurel. So Laurel takes the classic twin practical joke to its ghoulish extreme: She becomes Audrey and starts all over.
Writer-director Jenée LaMarque doesn’t have much interest in her high-concept premise; it’s a metaphor necessary for somehow getting Laurel in Audrey’s shoes and little more, and if the film lacks much in the way of tension and momentum it’s because LaMarque values the moment over the presiding narrative arc. And a number of scenes justify this strategy: Frank’s discovery of the truth of his daughter’s death while he’s on the phone, which inspires him to try to distract from his obvious weeping with tales of his routines with Laurel; Laurel’s first kiss with a lover, Basel (Jake Johnson), as they pretend to assume the lives of neighbors who appear to have everything they want, but implicatively feel is never to be for them; Frank’s discovery of Laurel’s true talent as a painter; and so forth.
These moments have a cleansing, unfussy directness, and the performers blossom under the tutelage of LaMarque’s refreshing emotional sanity. Kazan is simply astonishing, as she was in Revolutionary Road and The Exploding Girl (her emotions appear to seep out through her pores), and Lynch is heartbreaking in what could have been the role of the standard-issue uncommunicative dad. LaMarque isn’t without formal skill either, as the film sports bold, clean blocking as well as a pop-art sheen that suggests Technicolor as updated to the era of the contemporary flawless picture; she exploits digital’s pristine unreal perfection as a subtle metaphor for the perfection that hounds her protagonist. The Pretty One is a quiet, tender triumph that leaves you feeling as if you’ve been embraced without you feeling had.