On the continuum of savagery in the satirical high-school movie, Mean Girls represents the saccharine left end of the scale, with Clueless and Saved! in the middle, then Heathers, Election, and To Die For on the coldhearted right end. Farther still on the right, as distant as those new absolute-zero planetoids beyond Pluto, shivers Pretty Persuasion (which opens Friday, Sept. 2, at the Varsity). Evan Rachel Wood plays a scheming Beverly Hills teen with liquid nitrogen for blood. When she loses a boyfriend to a classmate (Elisabeth Harnois, who's good and sweet), she recruits her and a clueless Arab student (Adi Schnall) in a plot to accuse their strict English teacher/drama coach (Ron Livingston) of pederasty.
For satire to have a point, it must have a target, and this film is like a fire hose with no firefighter—it spritzes everywhere at random. Every character is vile or contemptible: the motivelessly malignant heroine, Harnois' dim-bulb pal, Schnall's racist caricature, James Woods as Wood's drug-and-porn-addict dad, Jane Krakowski as a gay TV reporter exploiting the scandal, and even the framed teacher. (He's more creep than criminal, asking his wife to don a school-uniform skirt and read a student's paper aloud to get him hot.) The film has two modes: pushy and murky. It's either rubbing your nose in disgusting behavior or floundering in vague aimlessness.
Persuasion doesn't earn its own dumb smugness. It could get away with South Park nihilism if it were remotely as good as South Park. It's not. Wood remains an important new actress, and it's interesting to see her vary her frantic Thirteen performance with this coldly stolid role. She's not an interesting psycho, though—just numb, mumbling, and dull. The whole movie is pretty unpersuasive.