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The Pretty One

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A film by Jenée LaMarque and starring Zoe Kazan and Jake Johnson

Breathe deep. Exhale. You are now ready to watch The Pretty One, a new romantic comedy directed by Jenée LaMarque and starring Zoe Kazan and Jake Johnson opening Valentines Day in LA.

If you turn your analytical mind off, you can easily enjoy Kazan work her way through a somewhat rough plot with her trademark awkward, vulnerable loveliness. The story is about two twins: Laurel, withdrawn and homebound; and Audrey, outgoing and successful. A car crash intervenes, killing the sophisticated Audrey and leaving the shy Laurel in a hospital coma, misidentified as her twin whose body was burned beyond recognition in the accident. After a suitable amount of angst, Laurel decides to reinvent her life by going along with the misidentification and masquerading as the vivacious Audrey. It doesn’t go well, but it ends well.

The film begins with the 22-year old Laurel, having remove-my-virginity sex with the 17-year-old next-door neighbor boy (hers virginity, not his) who she babysat only a few years earlier. After he exclaims “I can’t believe I’m doing this to my babysitter” and finishes the act, she naively asks “does this mean we are now boyfriend and girlfriend?” He kisses her and doesn’t answer, giving the audience much of what it needs to know about Laurel. The film continues on in a rather predictable setup of the accident that kills Audrey and switches Laurel’s identity. The scenes of the two twins talking together, played simultaneously by Kazan, are well done technically, but she doesn’t quite fully inhabit either of the two girls at this point in the film.

But she does fully inhabit Laurel-being -Audrey. From the time she awakens in the hospital, through her “own” funeral, and finally the decision to move to “the city” (which seems to be a working class suburb with swimming pools rather than an urban neighborhood) Kazan grows nicely into the Laurel/Audrey character and captures our heart as she captures that of her nerdy tenant, Basel, played almost pitch-perfect by Jake Johnson.

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Jenée LaMarque, who wrote and directed the film as a AFI project, has created a feel-good coming of age romantic comedy through the devices of identity and tragic loss. For a debut film it’s a winner – she did two of the three things a director is supposed to do: coax a great performance from her cast, and deliver an enjoyable film to the audience. The third, make money, I think will also happen.

LaMarque got most things right. From Kazan and Johnson in the leads and a strong supporting cast including John Carroll Lynch, Ron Livingston and Shae D’Lyn, to Polly Morgan’s gentle photography, Kiran Pallegadda’s intelligent editing and Julian Wass’s music that sonically complemented each scene but never intruded, LaMarque’s choices mostly worked.

What she didn’t get right was the script. The character introduction and the interminable accident set-up sequences – almost the first quarter of the film – were predictable and over directed. LaMarque was obviously afraid that if she missed a detail in the setup, we would be lost for the rest of the film. The opposite was true; we knew where it was going and we just wanted it to get there. If LaMarque had found another way to set up the story, perhaps through flashbacks or by starting in the middle and working back, we would have been intrigued instead of impatient. Littering several of the scenes with foreshadowing hints did not help.

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Fortunately, once Kazan was relieved of the need to be two people separately and could play them simultaneously, she brought her particular magic to the screen. At that point we could happily ignore the plot imperfections and just enjoy the unique, awkward charm that she brings to screen. By the second half of the film you are too invested in Kazan’s character and enchanted by her acting to be concerned about writing discrepancies.

Boiled down to its essence, The Pretty One is a likeable, hip, indy film from a new director that surfaces some thought-provoking ideas about identity, but is best not thought about, but just enjoyed. It makes a great date film for a Friday night when all you want to do is cuddle in the back row. See it. It’s fun.

Patrick O’Heffernan and Lynn Gutstadt

The Pretty One

A Schoor Pictures/Provennace Pictures film

Written and directed by Jenée LaMarqe

Starring Zoe Kazan and Jake Johnson

Running time: 90 minutes

Release date: Feb 7 in limited release

Rated R