It takes a pretty good collaboration to pull off the uber-soap opera-y premise of a mousy, shy twin taking over the life of the more together, more beautiful one after she dies in a car crash and everyone assumes the surviving twin is the other. It really is just too Young and the Restless to succeed most of the time. Yet somehow sudsy melodrama never enters into the picture in first-time director Renee LaMarque’s The Pretty One, starring Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks). Perhaps it’s LaMarque’s no frills, no pretension direction, and her letting the actors carry the load. And carry it Zoe Kazan does and does admirably. Her twin sisters Laurel (the plain one who lives) and Audrey (the pretty one who dies) couldn’t be more different, and Laurel’s transformation into Audrey, and the circumstances necessitating it seem completely plausible when knowing Laurel’s background and situation.
As unusual a backdrop as a surviving twin portraying the dead one is, The Pretty One is really more about Laurel’s coming of age (she’s a bit of a late bloomer) and coming into her own as a young woman. The story finds Laurel as the twin who stayed at home with their father after her mother died. She’s decided to finally lose her virginity in her early 20s, from her 17-year-old former babysitting charge, Hunter (Sterling Beaumon). And although she’s several years older, she still makes with all the inexperienced high school girl questions of him afterward (“Are we boyfriend, girlfriend, now?”). She then settles back into her routine of taking care of her father, Frank (John Carroll Lynch), wearing her dead mother’s clothes and following in the family business of painting knockoffs of famous masterworks like the Mona Lisa to sell.
Generally, it’s as pathetic as it sounds, and no one knows this more than Audrey, who’s beautiful and together and who lives in L.A. with a job and friends and a social life. So when she comes home for a visit, she can’t take it anymore and convinces Laurel to come live with her. She springs for a makeover, squares things with their father, whom she’s not close to by the way, and preparations are set. Then Laurel and Audrey are in a car crash, where Audrey dies and Laurel survives. And because Laurel’s lack of originality had her choosing Audrey’s exact hairstyle, and Audrey is barbecued, everyone makes the assumption, and Laurel is too PTSD’ed to correct them at first, then too horrified when no one seemed to give a shit that Laurel was gone at the funeral. Audrey’s life looks pretty good rather than the alternative, so she jumps at it.
So she goes to L.A. and finds herself falling for Audrey’s hipster duplex tenant, Basel (Jake Johnson), whom Audrey disliked and was set to evict. She slides into Audrey’s job as a real estate agent, trying to fool her friends and co-workers, explaining away her unfamiliarity with things as partial amnesia. Yes, again very soap opera, but strangely not. She also has to shoo away Audrey’s married ex, Charles, douche-ly played by Ron Livingston. All the while trying to deal with her identity crisis, guilt and loss of Audrey.
Performances roundly are fine as everyone works well withing the confines of the story. Although, I’m getting a little worried about Ron Livingston. With this and Drinking Buddies last year, he’s getting a little too comfy in the skin of dickbag exes. I miss the fun guy from Office Space. But really, it’s Kazan’s very grounded performance that elevates the material above it’s Days of our Lives origins. This could easily have felt like a rote Lifetime movie, but LaMarque’s script and framing of things really does give it that indie feel. It’s a pleasant, affecting film with a good central portrayal.
The Pretty One opens on February 7.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars