There are no evil twins in Jenée LaMarque’s clever and creative The Pretty One. There are no good twins in the film, either, no such black and white distinctions between siblings split from the same egg. There’s not even really a pretty one (because there’s certainly no ugly one), there are just two very different girls from the same place. (And a haircut and a car accident and a mix-up and a plan, but we’ll get to that in a bit.)
Laurel (Zoe Kazan) hasn’t progressed much beyond her younger years – after the death of her mother, she’s stayed nearly housebound, painting high class copies (read: forgeries you can hang in your own home) alongside her beloved father (John Carroll Lynch), sporting her mom’s duds, and bedding a high school student she used to help babysit (Laurel’s childish spirit helps this thorny subplot seem at least a hair less troublesome than it sounds on paper). Elsewhere, her idolized twin sister Audrey (Kazan, obviously) has carved out a new life for herself in the big city, complete with a career selling “storybook homes” to buyers looking for that extra something special. Audrey may be absent in Laurel’s everyday life, but she looms large – the duo’s twin beds remain pushed together in their shared childhood room, a bulletin board touts her many accomplishments (Laurel’s board holds but one ribbon), and an imminent birthday visit thrills Laurel. The birthday is bad in many ways, but it seems to be leading to something greater when Audrey asks Laurel to come away with her. Initially dismayed that her father doesn’t seem to care, Audrey embraces the possibilities – and a swanky new haircut that makes her look almost exactly like her cooler, more glamorous sister. It’s that haircut that causes the most problems, as it facilitates a major mix-up when the twins get in a terrible car accident that kills Audrey, leaving Laurel alone – and looking just like her sister.
You can probably guess what happens next. Under the guise of grief and amnesia, Laurel pretends to be Audrey, and sets about exploring a new identity – yes, sort of her sister’s identity – while also finding her own way away from the confines of home. Kazan is particularly winning when tasked with aping Audrey as Laurel, and LaMarque’s amnesia conceit helps sell “Audrey’s” strange behavior to plenty of people, from her best friend (a lovely Frankie Shaw) to her douchey boyfriend (Ron Livingston), all the way down to her grumpy neighbor Basel (Jake Johnson, who charms throughout). Inevitably, secrets have to be revealed (by way of a relatively uninspired plot twist), but Laurel’s journey, though occasionally meandering, is generally sweet and compelling (and even more so when she begins exploring herself through an unexpected new romance).
LaMarque’s script neatly and niftily fills out both girls and their very different characters, and both of Kazan’s dueling personas soon supersede such simple tags as “the pretty one” and “the weird one” or “the one who actually didn’t die in that fiery car accident.” Audrey, who first appears to be bossy and abrasive, eventually unfolds out to reveal a caring and crafty side that genuinely loves her sister and has her best interests at heart. Meanwhile, Laurel, who is initially infantilized and more than a bit bizarre, reveals a surprising creative side and zest for life that her initially childish nature obscures for the film’s first act.
The Pretty One is also appealing lensed, and LaMarque’s strong visual sense and style make every frame one to worth savoring. Kazan and Johnson have a winning chemistry that drives the film’s second half, though Kazan is asked to do most of the heavy lifting. She pulls off her dual roles with both believability and straight-up charm. The Pretty One is obviously her feature, and the actress delivers big time – both pretty and ugly, older and younger, dead and very much alive.
The Upside: Zoe Kazan admirably embodies two very different characters; Jake Johnson charms; Jenée LaMarque’s script puts a fresh spin on twin tropes; lovely visual style and sense
The Downside: Narrative meanders on its way to find its center; uses a relatively flaccid and trite plot twist to drive an essential series of revelations
On the Side: LaMarque’s script was an entry on the 2011 Black List.