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Meet Lila: She’s blond, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned. Her pretty face is untouched by makeup, and her eyebrows have clearly never met a pair of tweezers. She’s 16 years old and delicately feminine, and she stands out in her predominantly Arab neighborhood of Marseilles—and knows it.
Because, you see, Lila’s also the friendly type. As in: If she likes you, she’ll sneak you a peek of her, um, pushin’ cushion. And if she really likes you, she’ll give you a ride on her moped, ensure that you know she’s not wearing any underwear, and then jerk you off. And she doesn’t even have to know your name!
This little darling is the focus of Lila Says, the second feature of Lebanese-born director Ziad Doueiri. Based on a 1996 French novel whose author, referred to only as Chimo, remains unknown, Lila Says is framed by the voice-over of the 19-year-old Chimo (Mohammed Khouas), who lives in borderline poverty with his mother (Carmen Lebbos) and does little but kill time with his no-good friends. Chimo feels as if life is passing him by, until two things happen to expand the borders of his world: One, his French teacher recognizes his writing talent and encourages him to apply to a Paris school, and two, the lovely Lila (Vahina Giocante) moves into town with her screwed-up aunt (who herself likes to gaze upon Lila’s nether region, declaring it “Jesus Christ’s delicacy”).
When Lila begins taunting Chimo with her come-ons—while barely acknowledging his salivating friends, especially ringleader Mouloud (Karim Ben Haddou)—he starts to record his experiences with her for the writing sample he needs to get into the school. (This ambition isn’t something Chimo’s entirely sure of: “I’d look like less of a loser if I stayed here with the losers,” he reasons.)
Chimo’s narration adds bits of poetry throughout the film, at least when he’s talking about his depressed neighborhood: His mother “hears tears everywhere,” for example, he says, referring to the residents harassed because of post-9/11 profiling, while he describes his own lack of direction as “feeling as useless as a chair on a ceiling.” When referring to Lila, however, Chimo’s musings get a little more trite, full of dramatic flourishes such as “A dam broke inside me!” after meeting Lila and describing her voice—heard most often talking about her clit, giving blowjobs, or making porn—as “so sweet, you’d believe in miracles.”
The script, adapted by Doueiri and Mark F. Lawrence with Joelle Touma, offers some tension as Chimo keeps his “relationship” with Lila secret while Mouloud gets increasingly angry about Lila’s snubs. It all comes to a head, of course, and in the end, Lila’s presence in their lives is deemed transformative. But although Doueiri, who learned his trade assisting Quentin Tarantino, makes a fine effort to color his film with ethereality—his camera often swirls around the young goddess and intimately zooms in on her face, and scenes are further elevated by music by Air and Vanessa Daou—viewers may not find Lila or her dirty talk as magical as Chimo does.
Giocante is inarguably a fireball, and the young actress throws herself into the role of unabashed temptress with alarming intensity. As Lila’s natterings become increasingly fantastical—it’s never clear whether she’s as slutty as she claims to be, especially after she makes up a story about sucking off Satan—a glimmer of depth, or at least humanity, can be seen in the character, whose brashness begins to feel pitiable. But the film actually belongs to Chimo, whom Khouas portrays as as appropriately dumbstruck as any teenage boy would be when presented with his own personal whore. The problem comes when the lust between the two—they speak of little other than sex, and it’s mostly Lila who does the talking—begins to be presented as love. She says it, he says it, but no one else will likely buy it. In the end, Lila Says says very little at all, but at least one of film’s statements rings self-referentially true: “Cocks, pussies…what else is there?”
Kimberly Joyce, the 15-year-old central character of Pretty Persuasion, is Lila’s American counterpart. Except that Kimberly does talk about more than just sex—including why she’s glad she’s white and how these days nothing’s worse than being born an Arab. Which is what she tells her Arab friend, a meek new classmate named Randa, followed by a dirty joke about Arabs that she halfheartedly proclaims “ignorant.”
Kimberly (Evan Rachel Wood) also says, “There are just too many stupid, worthless, annoying people on this planet.” And the worst of them, apparently, have been characterized in Pretty Persuasion, television and music-video director Marcos Siega’s feature debut. Written by fellow first-timer Skander Halim, the flat, unfunny film aspires to satire on the level of Heathers, Election, and several other sharper, much less distasteful films of such ilk. But the trouble with it is twofold: The misdeeds of mean girls is a subgenre now pretty much played out, for one. And its characters are too single-mindedly nasty and repellent to provide much in the way of laughs.
Wood, who gained recognition in 2003’s girls-gone-wild Thirteen and the TV series Once and Again, is a Jena Malone doppelgänger here with her dyed dark hair and cool demeanor. To be fair, she’s perfect as Kimberly, a calculating, promiscuous private-school sophomore who orchestrates a sexual-harassment suit against her horndog English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Ron Livingston), after he fires her from the school play and isn’t very nice to either Randa (Adi Schnall) or Kimberly’s dopey best friend, Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois). Mr. Anderson openly lusts after his female pupils—he even buys his wife (Selma Blair) the same skirt his students wear for her birthday—so the case isn’t so far-fetched.
Even more than Lila Says, Pretty Persuasion seems to exist mainly for shock value. Kimberly obviously takes great pleasure in securing porn for her friends to watch while she tells them of her own anal-sex experience, and repeatedly asking her dad’s new wife (Jaime King) whether she “fuck[s] dogs.” And oh yeah, about her dad: Played with disgusting abandon by James Woods, Mr. Joyce is very likely the most reprehensible father figure ever to grace a teen comedy. Whether tossing off racial slurs (he refers to an ill colleague as “a fucking coughing kike”) or openly masturbating at home, Mr. Joyce makes his daughter seem like Mother Teresa.
After trying to stick with Siega’s ungracefully time-shifting story and maybe feebly laughing at one or two of its jokes (it is sorta funny when Mr. Anderson defends himself against the accusation that he asked to touch a girl’s boobs by saying, “I wouldn’t say ‘boobs’! I’m an English teacher!”), the audience is left with the revelation of Kimberly’s flat-out ridiculous hidden agenda, which is a weird apparent plea for pity, and likely a sudden desire for a shower. CP