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The latest low-budget trope from off-Hollywood is the mock documentary, useful cover that offers a running excuse for poor light, cheap cameras, and fragmented scenes; at this point, its ubiquity is growing rather tiresome. But in Drop Dead Gorgeous, fledgling director Michael Patrick Jann has a gimlet eye for what’s important in Lona Williams’ outrageous script, so his use of the happenstance camera is more cunningly effective. The mock-doc is used to best effect when chronicling cramped lives and big dreams in a wacked-out small town—cf. Waiting for Guffman—and when a fictional documentary crew tracks the progress of the Mount Rose, Minn., Miss Teen Princess America Pageant, it discovers that lives don’t get any more desperate and venal than this.

Like William Castle’s cheap, annunciatory horror effects, Drop Dead Gorgeous begins at a dizzying peak of wicked insanity and virtually dares moviegoers to stay in their seats. The opening sequence shows a video made for the contestants in which a Barry White-style song moans and growls over footage of teen girls being put through their well-scrubbed but highly sexualized paces. The crew follows high-powered local Lady Muck and former winner Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley) as she orchestrates the auditions for this year’s pageant. Alley’s Minnesota accent is perfect, her acting sharp and relaxed—she seems to be relieved that her sexy leading lady career is over and has never given a better performance than this turn as the aging, thickening, but still monstrously ambitious ex-beauty queen. She’s hilariously dismissive when, pulling into a handicapped parking space at the Mall of America over her friends’ objections, she snaps, “I told ya, I would move the car if a cripple came.”

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Gladys’ beautiful daughter, Becky (Denise Richards), is as spoiled, selfish, and talent-free as her mother, so naturally she’s a shoe-in for Miss Teen Princess. But over on the other side of the tracks, the equally beautiful and genuinely deserving Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst) is gearing up to give Becky some serious competition, tap-dancing her little heart out while doing makeup in the local funeral home. Amber has an understandable urge to get the hell out of her Mount Rose trailer, where her own mother, Annette (Ellen Barkin), lives on Luckys, Schlitz, and men-are-dogs gabfests with her friend Loretta (Allison Janney). Williams captures the pitch-perfect blend of ladylike justification and poor-side-of-town misery when Annette describes her carny ex-husband as someone who’s “chosen his career before family.” Amber, meanwhile, is sensible about her future—either end up like Mom or take a flyer on a pageant ticket to her dream of becoming just like her idol, Diane Sawyer.

The other contestants get less play—there’s the homely redheaded adopted child of a Japanese couple, who scorn their lovely Japanese daughter; an excitable teen in thrall to the delights of the “Big Apple,” where her brother is making a fine living as a female impersonator; a compassionate soul who wants to raise deaf awareness (although she’s hearing) by signing an interpretive dance to “Through the Eyes of Love”; and an artsy chick who can’t decide whether her dramatic monologue should be from Othello or Soylent Green.

One by one, the likeliest contenders meet untimely ends. Amber suspects Becky of knocking off rivals and sabotaging her appearance—think Tonya Harding with a more subtle toolbox. As the body count grows, the film crew roams, interviewing past winners, including the bitter Miss Teen Princess 1945, who wasn’t allowed to keep her tiara because “we were at war with the Japs,” a pathetic spokeswoman for the local pork-products plant. The reigning winner, interviewed in her hospital bed, is a weak but spunky anorexic with a hideous skeletal grin.

Drop Dead Gorgeous may have the bitchiest script this side of The Women, but its mercilessness stops short of malicious piling-on. The contestants show moments of sweetness to each other (all except Becky), and everyone gets a chance to have her say, however unreal her ambition or ridiculous her means of achieving it. The film knows exactly what it hates and zeroes in with outrageous ferocity—small-town religion, for one thing, small-town hypocrisy, for another. But not every small conceit comes in for punishment. Gorgeous pays unironic homage to the sense of community that the Leemans seek to destroy and cherishes the young girls’ infectious, naive giddiness. The script calibrates its cruelty factor case by case: The foul-mouthed town mayor is played for laughs; the pharmacist with powerful pedophiliac tendencies, unaccountably a pageant judge, is portrayed as a cringing moral weakling with reserves of rage. Becky’s ex-jock dad isn’t quite sure how he let his scheming picture-perfect wife become such a monster. (Look for his behavior in the background of the scenes of the Leemans at home.) And fun-loving Annette, who wants something better for Amber but doesn’t have the imagination to envision what that something might be, becomes the victim of a horrible accident with hilarious consequences that doesn’t mar her easygoing existence at all.

As is traditional in filmed beauty quests, the actual pageant is the film’s highlight, complete with backstage drama and some judicious contestant management on Gladys’ part. It is here where the movie goes from one wickedly funny strength to another, until you can’t believe your eyes. Just when you think you’ve never seen anything more grotesque than the anorexic reigning princess being wheeled around the stage in full glaring makeup and a black curly wig, singing “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” along comes Becky’s talent turn speak-singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” in bobby-soxer costume while hauling a life-size crucified cloth Jesus around the stage. The film drags at the end, when the pageant’s aftermath leads to two more pageants and a spectacular but unnecessary denouement. Then again, without it, we wouldn’t have been gifted with hearing the words of one shocked interviewee: “Fuckin’ beauty queens blowin’ chunks everywhere—I’ve never seen anything like it,” as dozens of pretties hurl over every balcony of a hotel.

Beauty pageants are easy targets, which Hollywood has taken frequent and gleeful aim at in Miss Firecracker and the underseen Smile. But Williams’ over-the-top script manages to parody the self-seriousness, attention to sequins, and good posture while ravaging the small, careless ferocities of the larger society. It’s also surprisingly optimistic and judicious—good things happen to good people, and the meanies suffer with satisfying extravagance. The acting is top-notch, among not just the grown-ups, but also the teeth-grittingly perky girls who all have their reasons for participating in this ridiculous spectacle. Drop Dead Gorgeous readjusts the focus on many American absurdities we take for granted: pageants, of course, the sexualization of children, stifling small-town codes of conduct, and—yah, you betcha—the friendly land of Minnesota. CP