While I wouldn’t want to reveal a main plot point that might spoil part of the surprise of “The Pretty One,” what is worth letting out of the bag is that Jenée LaMarque’s directorial debut is the most pleasant surprise so far of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
LaMarque doesn’t waste any time in springing the unexpected on the audience, introducing her leading lady Laurel (Zoe Kazan) being deflowered by her 17-year-old neighbor she used to babysit, a reasonable activity given that there’s not much else for her to do in her small town other than painting replicas of masterworks with her father (John Carroll Lynch), which she does wearing her dead mother’s clothing. Such inclinations have led Laurel to paint herself into a corner, naturally not bringing her much popularity over the years, unlike her sister Audrey (also Kazan), who left for the city to strike out on her own to work in the boutique real estate market where she sells “storybook houses.” Even without the castle-shaped residences, it’s a fantasy life that Laurel can only dream of from afar, though it suddenly seems within her grasp when Audrey comes home for their shared birthday and insists she come stay with her. Little does she know, she’ll be privvy to Audrey’s life way more than she ever could’ve imagined.
To say much more would rob “The Pretty One” of a big plot twist, but the film uses the identical twin set-up to great effect, playing with identity and misconception in a way I can’t ever quite remember seeing before. Then again, nearly everything about “The Pretty One” keeps things delightfully off-kilter, from the film’s mixture of eras and cultural markers to retain a dreamlike ambiance to LaMarque’s wonderfully peculiar sense of humor to cinematographer Polly Morgan’s distinctive framing that embraces negative space (a key into Laurel’s feeling of being small).
While the premise could easily lend itself to a twee comedy, particularly after Laurel meets Basel (Jake M. Johnson), the co-tenant of Audrey’s adorable suburban duplex, there’s a shade of darkness in both the writing and the execution that gives it some much needed edge. The timid Laurel isn’t just asked to find herself but to adapt to a lifestyle that doesn’t reconcile easily with the one that’s been in her head and how that disorientation gradually tilts away from Laurel towards her immediate circle as her confidence grows becomes one of the most interesting aspects of the film.
Kazan is great as both sisters, finding outlets for her considerable playfulness and the omnipresent desire for something more. Wrapped in the candy coating of pungent colors and punchy dialogue, she’s given the room to play the full array of emotions without straying far from the film’s overall tone, the same can be said for the rest of the cast, including veteran character actor Lynch, who really gets to shine as the girls’ soft-spoken father, and Johnson, who in addition to his recent turn in Joe Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies” and “New Girl” is perfecting a smolder to go with his keen way around a punchline.
But the spotlight should belong to LaMarque,who unlike her lead character has already found an original voice. It may not always be pretty, but with a wit and a wisdom that permeates both the film’s screenplay and visual style, “The Pretty One” is one of those films with such a rich premise, you can’t believe it hasn’t been made before, yet you sure believe it could’ve only been made by LaMarque.