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film review: the pretty one

Zoe Kazan in The Pretty One.

Zoe Kazan in The Pretty One.

It is true that most of us tend to define who we are by comparing ourselves to people around us; friends, sisters, mothers, daughters. This is done much more if you are a twin; more commonly, the younger twin. In her latest film, The Pretty One, Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks) portrays Laurel and Audrey, identical twin sisters who have headed down different paths in life to be defined by what the other doesn’t have.

Laurel is the youngest of the pair and she still lives at home, taking care of her father and painting copies of other people’s artwork. Audrey, however, left home earlier than her sister and has a life selling real estate in the city. She doesn’t come home often and has a strained relationship with her father.

Trouble starts at their birthday party when it’s discovered that Laurel has slept with a teenager that she had been babysitting. Audrey takes charge and tells Laurel that she’ll be taking her home to live with her, after a makeover and serious closet overhaul, where she will be free to have a life and paint whatever she wants. But tragedy strikes when they’re returning home and are caught in a head-on collision that leaves one of the twins dead. With the remaining twin suffering from post-traumatic amnesia and grieving the loss of her sister, it’s not hard to understand why Laurel doesn’t immediately realise that she is, in fact, the living sister — she has been accidentally identified as Audrey. On the day of her own funeral, Laurel realises the mistake, but as she attempts to tell her family, she is reminded of how she is perceived by everyone. She remains silent through the less than stirring funeral and Laurel decides that she’s going to take her sisters life, the life she had always wanted.

Laurel, someone who has had no real life experience up to this point, is suddenly thrust into a life that she never knew her sister had. She has a tenant, Basel (Jake Johnson, New Girl) that hates her and thinks she’s a bitch, and she has a boyfriend (Ron Livingston) that happens to be the husband of her pregnant boss. Laurel finds that to define herself she has to literally walk a thousand miles in her sister’s shoes.

This is where the film gets really interesting for me because, as we watch Laurel go through these new experiences and make choices for the first time in her life, we watch her discover who she really is — without the influence of her father and sister to define her. Her budding romance with Basel teaches her to love those quirky parts of herself that she had been ashamed of, and she starts to paint her own paintings instead of copying other people’s work. This aspect of the plot is somewhat problematic: throughout the film we’ve had Laurel slowly letting go of the structures that she had been surrounded by, as a daughter and a sister, but in the end she falls into another structure of being a girlfriend.

Laurel’s most memorable line comes when, as she confesses her true identity, she says, ‘I wanted to be just like her.’ As a younger sister, it is easy to understand that feeling – that frustration at being compared to other family members, and the way that we compare ourselves to a whole host of other people in our lives. We all want to be ‘just like’ someone because it’s easier to do that than to discover and define who we are ourselves.

The film makes an absurd story an excellent one, with director/screenwriter Jenée LaMarque managing to produce something believable by writing good characters and pacing the film well. Zoe Kazan is a wonderful actress to watch on screen, and her character’s development from a weak character to a stronger version of herself is captivating. While it’s frustrating that, in the end, Laurel still needs to be defined by her relationship with Basel to discover who she really is, it’s Hollywood after all, and this small fault can be overlooked.

LaMarque’s film is a triumph: she has created a coming-of-age film that women everywhere can find relatable. The Pretty One is about defining who you are without the people around you telling you who you should be.

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