Kazan Effect, by Rita Cannon
Jenée LaMarque’s debut feature The Pretty One is a delicate, low-key indie dramedy, despite having a slightly lurid plot that Alfred Hitchcock or David Cronenberg could probably have had a lot of fun with. It tells the story of Audrey and Laurel, two identical twins (both played wonderfully by Zoe Kazan) whose lives have taken very different paths. Audrey is outgoing and stylish and has her own apartment in the city, where she works for a boutique real estate firm and has torrid affairs with married men. Laurel, awkward and reticent, lives out in the burbs with the girls’ father (John Carroll Lynch), taking care of him – she doesn’t appear to have another job – while wearing her dead mother’s clothes.
While Audrey is back home for her and Laurel’s shared birthday, she decides to treat Laurel to a makeover. She buys Laurel new clothes and takes her to a hairdresser, who is instructed by Laurel to make her look just like her more glamorous twin. On the way home from the salon, they get into a serious car accident. Audrey is not only killed, but burned beyond recognition, and when Laurel wakes up in the hospital, she slowly realizes that everyone has mistaken her for her dead sister. Sensing an opportunity to leave behind her depressing existence, she doesn’t correct them, and uses the guise of memory loss to insinuate herself into Audrey’s ostensibly better life.
This is a pretty creepy thing to do, but LaMarque’s script plays it as surprisingly light and comedic; likewise, Kazan’s endearing performance makes us sympathize with Laurel and understand why she makes the choices she does. When she strikes up a romance with Basel (Jake Johnson), the other tenant in Audrey’s duplex who Audrey apparently despised, she has an even more compelling reason to keep up the ruse. Johnson, who has deservedly been in everything lately, is tremendously appealing, successfully grounding a manic pixie dream guy character that’s too quirky by half on the page. (He sells old books out of his home, but also lends them to the adorable local kids who frequently come over to play checkers, which nobody thinks is weird or creepy. Also, what kind of name is Basel?) The chemistry between Johnson and Kazan is so potent and swoony that we come to dread the revelation of Laurel’s deception, lest it ruin their romance. When this is inevitably comes to pass, the fate of their relationship is what keeps us invested in the fairly loopy plot.
Although Laurel’s grief at losing her twin feels a little glossed over – it’s basically relegated to a single line that might as well have been, “I know I don’t seem sad, but I’m actually very sad!” – the effect it has on her friends and family is beautifully rendered. Lynch is especially good as the girls’ father, a normally reserved man subjected to such an emotional roller coaster that he doesn’t which way is up by the end of the film. It would have been nice if every character was given as much given room to breathe, but The Pretty One sometimes sidesteps raw emotion in favor of breezy quirk, even when the former would seem more appropriate. Even so, it’s worth checking out for its intriguing premise, warm and sincere tone, and frequently great acting.