The Pretty One - 2013
Written & Directed by Jenee LaMarque
For some reason, I went into The Pretty One expecting something a little more like a thriller. After all, it concerned twins, death and lies; notable ingredients for creepiness. What I found inside was much different, to my pleasant surprise.
Laurel is a gawky young woman whose fear of the world is largely rooted in her lack of self-awareness. She doesn't know who she is, which makes it hard for her to understand how she can possibly fit into the outside world. She still lives with her father, taking care of him, helping him in his business of copying master paintings, and wearing her late mother's dresses. Another movie could easily take the relationship one incestuous step further, but that's not the story that Jenee LaMarque is here to tell, and the the full extent of the unhealthy bond is mitigated by her father's girlfriend.
Laurel's twin sister, Audrey, comes back to town for their shared birthday and sees how stunted Laurel is in an environment content to continue seeing her as an awkward child. Audrey is everything that Laurel is not; confident, driven, self-identified, less affected by others, and maybe a little more callous -- except where Laurel is concerned. She determines to take Laurel back to the city with her, giving her the opportunity to finally become herself. In preparation for her big city debut, Audrey takes Laurel to the salon for a makeover, and having little sense of what a more confident self would look like, Laurel gets the same styling as Audrey.
Audrey wakes up in the hospital with a broken arm, just enough facial damage to remind us that she was in an accident, and a temporary case of amnesia. Laurel, she's told, died in the accident, burned beyond recognition. It's not until the morning of Laurel's funeral that Audrey realizes that she is actually Laurel, and it was Audrey who dies in the accident. Before she can straighten things out, her father and his girlfriend start saying the kind of dumb things that people say when they're trying to be comforting but mostly because they feel uncomfortable. Things like "better this way" and "maybe it's a blessing" and other such foolishness that are intended to soothe Audrey, but instead communicate to Laurel a dismissiveness toward who she was and the life that she lived. In her pain and anger, she decides to keep the truth to herself.
The biggest thing that The Pretty One has going for it is lead actress Zoe Kazan. She is just so damned charming I can hardly stand it. How charming is she? She's so charming that she made the film Ruby Sparks (which she also wrote) work despite the skin-crawling creepiness of Paul Dano. But she's also just good. She plays Laurel and Audrey as believably different people despite some of the clumsier split-screen moments in their scenes together. Laurel's posture makes her look smaller, not just physically, but as a presence. She broadcasts the emotional state of her characters on a visceral level that draws the viewer into them, or at least that's what I experienced. I felt like I knew what she was feeling before she really gave it away. I predict many more good things from her in the years ahead.
Other performances were functional, but not particularly distinguished. I don't mean that as a negative. They primarily served the purpose of illustrating what Laurel was going through in different situations. I still haven't been able to figure out if Jake Johnson is a good actor or not. He's likeable, but his performances don't strike me as particularly naturalistic. For what it's worth, that's a combination that has often worked out perfectly well in Hollywood.
The script definitely made some choices and forged ahead with the story it wanted to tell, but then don't they all? The story was so focused on Laurel that it seemed at time like Audrey got short-changed. The gravity of her death was diminished by Laurel's issues. It's not exactly a knock, but it is something that stood out to me as a viewer. The direction was relatively restrained, which I think was a good choice. It hung back and just let Kazan carry the film, which she certainly did. As mentioned, it was the split-screen moments that seemed the clunkiest, but they were few, relative to the overall story.
I will definitely be taking another look at The Pretty One.