The US has a solid reputation when it comes to high school films. Every generation seems to have its standout titles which spread far and wide outside of its cultural borders. I'm not the biggest fan and I have no clue at all what prompted me to watch Pretty Persuasion (it wasn't a big hype or anything), but I remembered this being a pretty lovely surprise back in the day. I wasn't at all certain how it would hold up after all this time (somewhat assuming it probably wouldn't), but I was pleasantly surprised when I watched it again for a second time.
High school dramas and comedies truly are a staple of US cinema. It's a little crazy how familiar these films feel, even though the cultural elements that carry them are quite different from my own school experience. Pretty Persuasion falls in the category of the snide high-school comedy (a bit like Mean Girls), only cranked up to the next level. The themes, situations, and societal critique should feel familiar to fans of the genre, but there's an edginess here that is anything but common in US cinema. And that's exactly why I fell in love with it again.
Like many of its peers, the film deals with high school stereotypes, the way the school rituals and social hierarchies shape the students in their future lives, and the irreverence of whatever feels super important at the time. That's familiar territory, but rather than stick to genre conventions and layer it with light irony, Pretty Persuasion cuts deep with sarcasm from the very start of the film. There's certainly a penchant for kicking political correctness in the chins, but it's never done gratuitously or without the proper winks and flair for comedy, which makes this film so unique.
Kimberly is a young high school student. She is one of the prime students in her class, she has the looks, she is way too smart for her own good and she is cunning when she needs to be. She is welcoming a new immigrant student and teaching her the inner working of the school. She also holds a grudge against one of her teachers, so she and her friends devise a plan to get him fired. It's a sneaky plan that is going to run way out of control and will impact the entire school and the community surrounding it, but that doesn't faze Kimberly in the least.
Visually the film isn't all that remarkable, but it's not without attention to visual detail either. The cinematography matches the prim and proper ambiance that you'd expect from a high school for rich folk, including the fake glitz and glamour. The camera work is proper and relatively refined, colors often pop and a few shots manage to linger, but ultimately it looks a bit plain and in line with my expectations. It's not a terribly big problem for a comedy (that is actually funny), but the potential was there to do better, so it's a shame Siega didn't push just a little harder.
The score is probably the weakest link here, luckily, comedies are the one genre where a lacking score doesn't have a substantial impact. It's not that the music is terrible, it does give the film a nice flow and there's definitely a level of irony to the lightness of the music, but unless you pay specific attention to it, chances are you won't even remember it afterward. Siega could've done more with it, pushing the level of cynism and irony to even crazier heights, but then the project might have just been shelved altogether. I'm not going to complain too much, in other words.
The star of the film is Even Rachel Wood, in what is still one of the best roles to date. She is simply perfect for her part here, equal parts sweet, bitter, and rotten. Her delivery is perfect, going from prim school girl to nasty vixen to deplorable manipulator in just the blink of an eye. Ron Livingston and James Woods are very notable in secondary parts, the rest of the cast is good too (and clearly in on the joke) but leaves less of a definite mark. Overall, the cast does its job very well, and with a superb lead and some memorable supporting roles, there's nothing to complain about.
The film starts with a few flying tackles, and it never truly settles down after that. Rather than sticking with sharp pokes and random jabs, Siega refocuses to tackle bigger issues later on. That's a good thing too, as it elevates it from a purely joke-based comedy to something with a bit more body. While some of the twists in the latter half may be a tad half-hearted, the finale is spot-on and left me somewhat dazed. The mix of bitter and sweet is refined and succeeds on both accounts, without coming off dulled by mixing the two. It's a very neat trick to pull off.
Pretty Persuasion never made any significant waves, and it's a film that slowly faded from my memory. The latter might be a result of the former though, as there really is a lot to love here, it's just a little too harsh and relentless to appease a bigger audience. It's a shame that films like these tend to disappear from the conversation after a while, but it's really not that big of a surprise. If you're looking for some snide high school comedy, with a memorable lead performance, some upscale visuals, and a challenging finale, give this little gem a shot. It certainly deserves some extra love.