Devil in a School Dress

Silver screen successes rarely come easy, and standard operating procedure for many a Hollywood hopeful is to beg, borrow, blackmail, steal or sleep one's way to stardom sometimes all of the above. As reality T.V. and the ever growing gossip market demonstrate on an almost daily basis, some people will do anything for those elusive 15 minutes in the spotlight.   

Fifteen-year-old Kimberly Joyce (Evan Rachel Wood) makes them look like angels.

Left to right: Kimberly (Evan Rachel Wood), Randa (Adi Schnall) and Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois) hatch their plan.

A Machiavellian minx with a disarming smile and a jones for fame, Kimberly uses her precocious charms to manipulate anyone who stands in her path, picking off parents and peers at will in Marcos Siega's pitch black comic tragedy. 'Pretty Persuasion' is like 'Election' with a mean streak, and Skander Halim's wickedly funny script turns an upscale private school into a microcosm of modern society ripe for razor sharp satire.

Played to pitiless perfection by Wood, Kimberly is Karl Rove with a Tracy Flick exterior a ruthless competitor that can hold a bubbly grin while twisting the knife in the back of her unsuspecting mark. She's learned the tricks of the trade from her business savvy father (James Woods), and when her nebbish drama teacher, Percy Anderson (Ron Livingston), impedes her path to stardom, she hatches a scheme to crush him. Enlisting the help of her best friend Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois) and protege Randa (Adi Schnall), a Pakistani immigrant caught up in their wake, the trio cries wolf in front of an ambitious reporter (Jane Krakowski) and puts Percy in the defendant's seat of a sexual harassment witch trial.

Percy (Ron Livingston, left) and Roger (Danny Comden) try to decipher their students' motives.

But the accusations are just part of the plan, and only Kimberly knows where it ultimately ends. No one is safe from her ire or Halim's satirical barbs, and everything from the dreams of silver screen flirtation that pervade Kimberly's school to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is fair game. Halim's script refuses to pull punches, skewering the Gulf War, our president and even society's treatment of school shootings with a wry, snarky humor that engages our intelligence rather than insulting it.

'Pretty Persuasion' takes on so many issues that it spreads itself too thin at times, resulting in a few jokes and scenes that rely on over the top comedy bits to help us laugh through our disbelief, as well as some preachy moments near the end that don't quite fit, but Siega's deft direction helps keep the pace, drawing us into Kimberly's scheme without tipping his hat to the surprises yet to come.

Hank (James Woods) attempts to offer some fatherly advice to Kimberly (Wood).

Though most of the characters are one-dimensional archetypes which may or may not have been a deliberate choice they play perfectly into superficial mentality that the film is mocking. They often function more as caricatures or even plot devices sometimes to the detriment of the film, as is the case with Randa but the strong performances help to humanize the satire. Woods lets it all hang out as a bigoted blowhard embittered by his empty success, mocking materialism through his childish antics and turning bad behavior and perversity into self-deprecating comedy, even managing to let a hint of vulnerability peak through on occasion. Livingston takes the other extreme, playing Percy's lack of confidence and befuddled behavior in the midst of so many teenage temptresses to near perfection. Siega's direction also helps, following the sway of adolescent hips and bodies and letting his camera linger on them almost to the point of leering. Many of these girls delight in deliberately tormenting their male teachers, and Siega's direction puts us right in the center of it, letting us share a few confused strides in Percy's shoes.

But the linchpin here is Wood; the fate of the film ultimately hinges upon her abilities, and she doesn't disappoint, surpassing the promise she showed in 'Thirteen' with a star making tour de force performance. She plays perky, sexy, cruel and vulnerable with equal aplomb, casually pulling the strings to bend everyone to her plan and charming her way through even the most brutal moments of the film.

Kimberly charms a reporter (Jane Krakowski).

One of the reasons 'Pretty Persuasion' is so effective is its willingness to push the limits and balance humor and scathing satire, as well as its refusal to copout with the types of ill-fitting happy endings so prevalent in summer films. In this tragicomedy, fame still has its price, and as Kimberly boxes up the last remnants of the girl she was, watching her new self the bittersweet realization of her ambitious dreams on TV, her tears mourn the girl she used to be.

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