Pretty Persuasion

Lead-footed revenge comedy about a manipulative, fame-obsessed high school sophomore (Evan Rachel Wood) who decides the fastest route to stardom is through scandal. So, enlisting the aid of both her dippy best friend and a shy Muslim girl, she files sexual abuse charges – which may or may not be valid – against a lecherous English teacher at their Beverly Hills private school.

Though the idea is promising, it's killed within the first five minutes by Skander Halim's self-satisfied script that says nothing new, funny, or insightful. In 1989, Heathers set the bar for high school satire. The flawless Election raised it sky high a decade later. 2004's Mean Girls couldn't compete, but at least it crammed in some amusing commentary about the social pecking order of teenagers. Pretty Persuasion, in comparison, feels like it was written in a vacuum.

I don't know his background, but I get the feeling that Halim hasn't experienced anything other than a few screenwriting classes. He aims to skew not only high school life but the legal system, TV news, the modern American family, and the culture of fame as well. Unfortunately, his talent is no match for his ambition. Moreover, none of his script rings true. The courtroom scenes alone are so phony that even a casual Law & Order watcher can tell that Halim hasn't done his homework. Ditto Jane Krakowski's pushy TV news reporter: she's not a clever sendup of anybody in the real world, because no onair personality actually acts or speaks like she does.

One could defend Pretty Persuasion by saying that it's not supposed to be realistic. But the best satire, not matter how outrageous its presentation, has firm roots in reality. And since this film's final fifteen minutes are deadly serious, it's clear that Halim does intend to make a Big Statement about Something. But it's a bad script, and a sinking tide lowers all boats: music video director Marcos Siega does little to enliven the proceedings; Ramsey Nickell's camera seems more enamored of the posh Beverly Hills locations than of the actors' faces; and Evan Rachel Wood, who was so great in the otherwise overrated Thirteen, seems stiff. (Her hair is fabulous, though.) The rest of the cast fares even worse, although they do seem to be oddly devoted to the project. James Woods, as Wood's racist father, gets in a couple of laughs as he chews the scenery, but his rantings don't shock nearly as much as they're meant to. Only Selma Blair, in a small role, leaves much of an impression.

I'll stop now before wasting any more time bashing Halim's inane, senseless, pretentious script, which is chock full of weak explanations for its contrived plot twists and unbelievable character motivation. All I will say is that if film critics and festivals are heaping praise upon this heavy-handed bore – and they are – then our standards for the American independent film have plunged.