Spiralling Deep, Into the Teenage Wasteland: On ‘Pretty Persuasion’

A still from 'Pretty Persuasion'. Kimberly (Evan Rachel Wood) stands centre frame in mid-shot in front of the wooden door for a women's bathroom. Her arms are stretched out across the door frame, as if blocking someone from getting in or out. She is a high-school age girl, white and slim with auburn hair to her shoulders with a pink bow on the left hand side. She wears an entirely pink, overly feminine outfit of a fitted floral dress and slim cardigan with the two top buttons fastened.
Samuel Goldwyn Films

In a joint article by David Fear, Joshua Rothkopf and Keith Uhlich for Time Out in 2013, they make a strong remark: “parents admit that some children, adorable as they are, must simply be born bad. Not their children, of course. But those barbaric youngsters, rebellious, foul mouthed, sometimes just pure evil, always make it to movie screens.”

A statement of this kind will sound hyperbolic but looking at the high school index of shoot-outs, crime graphs, vile passions and fraudulent machinations perpetrated by young ones, we may be underrating the interface of real and reel. A film on the same lines which catches more than the drift of a teenage wasteland is 2005’s Pretty Persuasion. Whatever hint there is of teenage innocence or naivete takes a turn for the worse. Here in this film, plumes of such pre-ordained rules are plucked and deflowered by age-appropriate depravity. Its central pivot is 15 year old Kimberly Joyce (Evan Rachel Wood), who seemingly has it all − the looks, oodles of confidence and an upper hand in terms of social mobility as member of the exclusive swish set for whom flow of money has never been a concern. In fact, her status has made her impervious to call of morality. In the film, one of the most convincing arcs is of her father Hank (James Woods), a boorish brute so callous and flippant in his racist, sexist indignities, he becomes a model of imitation for Kimberly, who picks on his ways − such as when she uses an anti-Semitic statement in school casually. She later tweaks this behavioural pattern to suit her ill-begotten cruel intentions. Confident as she is, her calculations are cloaked in opportunism.

Director Marcos Siega intelligently sets all the action in the ivory towers of a ritzy high school, located in none other than the city of opportunities: Los Angeles. The city’s legendary superficiality is a mirror here, accommodating surface shine with an ugly truth we would like to dismiss as some heightened farce, to be kept distance from. So, the power dynamics that we normally associate with brokers of business and entertainment circuits transpire in all its anti-social leverage in hallways of educational wisdom. Playing with the squeaky-clean image of teenagers, the quick witted screenplay is a further slant on the hollow power of clinical education to override an impressionable mind’s self-destructive journey. Kimberly is aware of her manipulative attributes, boasts of a dominant streak and invincible haughtiness identified with her bloated self-esteem. This slowly accounts for her megalomania through which lines of popularity and infamy blur. Channeling her inherent dislike for her English teacher who fails to be entrapped by her guiles, she purports a dangerous plan to teach him a lesson for not taking stock of her, to disturbingly ominous outcomes. The ‘popular teenager in high school’ trope is dismantled here. In the process, she hypnotises two weaklings to implicate him on false, but ‘socially credulous’ charges of sexually molesting them. Yes, behold the horror of this particular situation, as it’s just too real in the age of social media even though this movie is set in the years leading up to that cultural explosion of the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

These two girls (Adi Schnall and Elisabeth Harnois) exist on the periphery of popularity, one owing to her introvert nature and the other on account of racial anonymity; the latter is a ‘Muslim in a hijab’ fending off unfavourable advances of foreign roots. Both somehow comply, believing in the falsified belief that it’s how things work, as optimised by the one they envy and covet. Hence, this model of exploitation is a grim look at the moral wasteland where competition is cut-throat and vindictive, and the price of reputation powered by plastic whims. So much so that even such unsuspecting pawns are swayed and morally ravaged by the idea of ‘survival’.

A still from 'Pretty Persuasion'. Kimberly (Evan Rachel Wood) is seen smugly walking across school grounds avoiding a media mob, who are being held back by campus security. Kimberly glances over at a reporter as she walks past the crowd holding her hands behind her back, her hair is dark and she wears a grey zip-up hoodie and pleated denim mini skirt.
Samuel Goldwyn Films

In Pretty Persuasion, the severity of the issue addressed is cheapened by media’s meddlesome ways. A lascivious reporter Emily (Jane Krakowski, who excels in this mould of characterisation) fuels the fire with an insensitive sense of glee and eyeball grabbing gimmicks. She gets her even share of the drama when an encounter with Kimberly makes the latter blackmail her with evidence of a videotaped rendezvous. In the direction, there are obvious satirical overtones and undertows, informing us of the legal murk which involves the three girls and besmirches the teacher’s hard-earned reputation. When the truth and fabrications are separated and ascertained, it ensures notoriety for the trio of high schoolers.

However, as Kimberly had intended to swerve the resultant controversy for an acting break, she walks out of it inviolable in spirit and zest, in turn getting just what she desired. She uses the sensitive topic of sexual harassment as an instrument of manipulating and swaying popular opinion about a new age and a skewed gender primer available for our consumption. In fact, this aspect makes me rake up the past in the form of colonial tensions, sexual and emotional repression represented in Adela Quested and her contentious sojourn in E.M. Forster’s ‘A Passage to India.’ Adela is an Englishwoman excited to explore the heat, dust and textbook exotica of the Orient, her dysfunctional arranged alliance with Ronny, a Magistrate and chauvinist, unnerves her and her latent affections for the good natured Dr. Aziz, who commands her respect and trust, shatters her febrile psyche. On a trip to the Marabar Caves, claustrophobic tempers and her own mental disintegration get the better of her. The result being that she accuses Aziz of outraging her modesty in the cave, a charge that opens putrid wounds for all involved within a colonial setting. Even though the truth is revealed and Adela eventually accepts her mistake in court of law, the unhealthy meeting of the twain positions heightens the mystery regarding truth and lies, the man-woman equation and more. The text and its movie version differ from Pretty Persuasion in terms of setting, female character’s age and social make-up of the setting. However, the tantalising landscape in which honour and dishonour take a gendered swipe doesn’t. Adela’s naivete and altered experiences in an alien land makes way for Kimberly’s ice maiden and her conscious administrations of salaciousness. In both cases, innocent men pay the price for being, it seems, born into a malignant society and generalised gender certification.

For Brittany and Randa, the other vulnerable two girls involved, it’s a blot and ends in heartburn. For Randa, a girl with an inheritance of conservatism behind her, it’s the worst kind of public flogging and social harakiri, validated when she returns to school one last time to collect her belongings before she leaves the country. The mis-en-scene works very powerfully to delve into her grave identity as a figure of spite and self-loathing on her own part. Standing in her bare classroom, she takes off her hijab, writes down the prescient, almost apocalyptic quote, ” We all are sinners” and then shoots herself. The solitary blackboard and that prose chalks the murder of innocence, locating it in a situation contrary to a school and its compact, safe ambience. This film, then, is ingenious in the sense that it goes for a multitude of perceptions incorporating racism, sexuality, obsession with fame and twisted status quo into Kimberly’s worldview and her overall moral compass. In the end, it is a potent delineation of how our upbringing shapes a generation and the trajectory youth is taking to make ends meet.

by Prithvijeet Sinha

Prithvijeet Sinha is from Lucknow, India. A regular contributor to Screen Queens, he lives for the beauty of poetry in moving images and translates them into stirring writings in verse and prose. He is also a dedicated cinephile. 

2 replies »

  1. Nice to see someone writing about this. An forgotten gem and for me the defining teen-girl film of the 00’s (and that includes Mean Girls)


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