The Samuel Goldwyn Company presents a film directed by Marcos Siega.

Written by Skander Halim.

Running time: 104 minutes.

Not rated (but with profanity, sexuality and mature situations).

Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Ron Livingston, James Woods, Jane Krakowski, Elisabeth Harnois, Selma Blair, Danny Comden, Stark Sands, Jaime King, Adi Schnall.

Warning: Minor spoilers ahead

The most biting critique of American values this side of Dogville, Pretty Persuasion is a dark, vicious satire about the destructive power of high school's pettiness and sexual hypocrisy. A film this daring, hilarious and powerful, this full of ideas and emotions, is one to be cherished and celebrated. It's best movie I've seen so far this year, and exactly the sort of thing our increasingly tame movie industry needs.

Much has been said about the film's humor, which is unapologetically politically incorrect and offensive. It establishes this early on, with Kimberly (Evan Rachel Wood), a mature and frighteningly intelligent 15-year-old high school student, telling Randa (Adi Schnall), an Arab immigrant, how glad she is to be white, a statement that she follows with an exhaustive list of races in order of preference - "If I couldn't be white, I'd like to be Asian, because a lot of guys like them because they think they're demure and subservient. But I don't think that's really the truth, because I met this one Asian girl, and she was a real bitch."

Some have accused the film of being shocking just for the hell of it, but every off-color joke in Pretty Persuasion is backed by screenwriter Skander Halim's righteous anger. This is an exceptionally personal, emotionally charged film, and to suggest otherwise is hopelessly misguided. More simply, however, if you're not easily offended, the movie is just funny as all hell, filled with memorable one-liners and snappy dialogue

After losing the lead in The Diary of Anne Frank for making an anti-Semitic remark, Kimberly, along with Randa and friend Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois), sues her drama teacher (Ron Livingston) for sexual harrassment, hoping to kick-start her acting career through the case's inevitable media coverage. Jane Krakowski plays Emily Kline, a lesbian reporter who falls for Kimberly's manipulations and pushes for her case. The film attacks the media for its cynical exploitation of serious issues, showing how Emily uses Kimberly just as much as Kimberly uses her, leading to easy readings of the film as a satire of the mass media's obsession with controversy.

And it is that, but it is also so much more, and to view it only on those simplistic terms is just asking to be disappointed. Halim also turns both barrels on America's sexual double-standard, in which boys are celebrated but girls are punished for their carnal appetite. But where the film's power comes from is its real subtext, which suggests that a girl as mature and intelligent as Kimberly has no chance of survival in the bitter, vindictive world of high school.

Key to the film's success is Halim and director Marcos Siega's insistence on showing us where Kimberly is coming from. Her father (James Woods, a riot) is a hateful bigot, married to Kathy, a vapid sexpot clearly unfit to be any sort of mother figure (Kimberly's constant quips about Kathy's relationship with the family dog provide many of the film's most hilarious lines), and her real mother is completely distant, unaware of her daughter's age or even the correct spelling of her name. Every boy in her life has mistreated and used her; one boyfriend, after having a perverted request graciously fulfilled, breaks up with her and spreads vicious rumors, damaging rumors. Finally, the drama teacher really is a bastard with a thing for schoolgirls; and although he never outright abuses any of the girls, an invasive "exercise" that he forces Brittany to go through comes close.

Also important is Wood's tour-de-force performance, easily the finest of the year - possibly of the past several - cementing her as not only the bravest actress of her generation but also quite simply the best. Fiery and eloquent, she sells her comedic lines with brilliant timing and delivery ("Why must you criticize everything in my Big Bag of Fun?") and grounds even her character's most outrageous statements in emotional realism. As Pretty Persuasion spirals toward its dark conclusion, Wood shows her character's descent in all its pathetic, wrenching sadness.

To many critics, the serious last act seems like a shocking change of pace and tone. But as a logical extension of the film's subtext, these events take on new meaning, and Pretty Persuasion becomes crushingly, devastatingly powerful. As Kimberly watches herself on television, her nihilisitc and destructive plan completed, tears welling up in her eyes, we see how she has been slowly corrupted and driven insane by her world. Pretty Persuasion is a biting, hilarious tragedy, and it is impossible to forget.

© 2005 Matt Noller, not that anyone would ever want to steal this