Pretty Persuasion

So Evan Rachel Wood has found her niche: trashy, devious teenage girls who appear in “edgy” movies at Sundance. First there was “Thirteen”; now she’s a bit older (though not old enough, considering what she’s called upon to do in this movie) and appearing in “Pretty Persuasion,” a dark high school satire in the vein of “Heathers” and “Mean Girls,” though not nearly as well-crafted as either of those films. It does have its moments, though, and Wood has emerged as a real talent.

She plays Kimberly Joyce, a student at a snobby private high school called Roxbury. Unlike the blond, bubbly girls who populate Roxbury, Kimberly has dark hair and an even darker psyche. Her wealthy father (James Woods), a raving bigot, anti-semite and homophobe, is on his third marriage, to a woman (Jaime King) much younger than he. The family dinner table is a surreal affair, all three of them speaking, but not to each other. Kimberly’s best friend Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois) is dating her ex-boyfriend Troy (Stark Sands), a fact she claims to find unalarming, though Kimberly herself is now dating a guy whom she freely admits she doesn’t even like.

Kimberly’s dream is to become an actress. She certainly gets enough practice at it, pretending not to care what happens to her, pretending to be aloof from the daily tragedies of high school, and manipulating facts to her advantage.

Which brings us to the meat of the plot. A slimy teacher at Roxbury (played by Ron Livingston) is accused of sexual misconduct by Kimberly, Brittany and their new Muslim friend Randa (Adi Schnall). Kimberly is the driving force behind the charges, seeing the inevitable news coverage and court proceedings as potentially beneficial to her acting career. And who knows, the allegations might even have some basis in truth.

What “Pretty Persuasion” seems to want most of all is to be outrageous, from James Woods’ hilariously hateful ranting (until it becomes overused) to the random shocking lines of dialogue spoken by the girls. Sometimes I suspect the screenwriter, Skander Halim, doesn’t care if we laugh as long as we’re appalled. When Brittany says, “You’re not going to make us write letters to Amnesty International again are you? I swear, most of those people deserve to be in prison,” we’re supposed to think, “Amnesty International as the butt of a joke?! Oh no she di’int!” It’s not the laugh that’s important, you see. It’s the “fearlessness” of the movie for being brave enough to shoot at sacred cows.

The thing is, it doesn’t take bravery to make fun of things. I make fun of things all the time, and I’m a coward. To do a good job at it — to make it not just shocking, but funny — that’s something else, and it takes skill. Halim’s writing often demonstrates it, and even when it’s just shocking for the sake of being shocking, I’m usually laughing along with everyone else, even though I know I’m being had.

Once the court case begins, though, the movie turns a corner and realizes it doesn’t know what neighborhood it’s in anymore. Marcos Siega, a TV director making his big-screen debut, loses focus: Are we mocking the horrors of modern-day teenage-hood? Or are we satirizing media hysteria and public trials?

It goes downhill even further at the end, when the movie stops being a dark comedy and becomes a Serious And Important film instead. Why, it turns out there’s a MESSAGE here! And we’re supposed to take it to heart!

Well, bullcrap. It doesn’t work that way. A change in tone this abrupt must be handled carefully, and the events within the plot that catalyze it must be honest and uncontrived. “Pretty Persuasion” goes the opposite route, throwing sad, ugly things at us that barely even make sense within the framework of the film, situations where you think, “That character would NOT do that.” It wants to have its cake and eat it, too, to make us laugh at its audacious effrontery for 85 minutes, then make us cry at its tragedy for the last 20. But I refuse. I’m a tough customer that way.

C (1 hr., 45 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity and vulgarity, several scenes of strong sexuality.)