Drop Dead Ringer

For her full-length directorial debut, 34-year-old Jenée LaMarque has made a coming-of-age film that is emotionally vulnerable, philosophically queasy, artistically imperfect and, in its own odd way, uncomfortably beautiful. It would be easy to pick on The Pretty One, the story of Laurel (Zoe Kazan), a twin who, after a car accident, assumes her dead sister’s identity: The movie is, by turns, obvious and obtuse, silly and sincere, shocking and sappy. It is also, like its heroine, completely lovable, given that one is capable of loving the often stumbling and stuttering paths fools take to personal freedom.

The notion of “the double” has a long tradition in art, and especially in romantic comedies, where a character can escape her lonely, stilted existence by taking on the disguise of her ideal self and thereby find über-happiness and true love forever, etc., etc. Here, director LaMarque takes this Cinderella tradition and spins it out like a feminist’s bad trip. Laurel wakes up in the hospital and is mistaken for her more charismatic and successful sister Audrey, “the pretty one” who was burned unrecognizably in the crash. So she runs with it. Why stay Laurel, the mousy wallflower who lives with her father, Frank (John Carroll Lynch), when she can be Audrey, the successful real-estate agent with the chiseled boyfriend Charles (Ron Livingston, who is perfect as a pathological narcissist)? A huge part of the charm of The Pretty One is the way Kazan plays out this switcheroo as though it’s thrust upon her, more accident than opportunism; she is the portrait of bumbling neurotic need, a victim of life who can’t hear the proverbial beat of her own drummer. At first.

Moving into Audrey’s seemingly cozy existence, Audrey/Laurel meets Basel (Jake Johnson), the slouchy tenant next door who her sister was about to evict so she, Laurel, could move in. Basel, all rough edges and boho free spirit, is taken aback when Audrey/Laurel suddenly says he can stay (Audrey, it seems, was sort of a bitch). The two start spending time together, and Audrey/Laurel begins to mold a new identity by allowing her spirit to blossom through the outer shell of her sister’s existence. It’s boilerplate stuff, really, the sort of cornball mistaken-identity schtick that drove every episode of Three’s Company.

Somehow, it all works, and at times The Pretty One achieves a sort of whacked grace, as when Kazan viciously chews out everyone at Laurel’s funeral for not appreciating her sister (herself). Johnson, who is quickly becoming an indie darling, is perfect as the romantic foil to Laurel/Audrey’s spiritual transformation, and Kazan proves herself a sharp comic study, part Olive Oyl, part Lucille Ball.

An offbeat meditation on image and imagination, The Pretty One invites us to look closer at our own relationships, the way we take for granted people and the so-called happy lives they’re living. How often do we imitate others, trying to steal the secrets of the good life, only to end up disconnected from our true selves? These are questions this movie attempts to answer, and it does so in an often-elegant manner. 

THE PRETTY ONE: Directed and written by Jenée LaMarque. Cinematography, Polly Morgan. Editing, Kiran Pallegadda. Music, Julian Wass. Starring Zoe Kazan, Jake Johnson, Ron Livingston and Danny Pudi. Provenance Pictures, 2013. R. 90 minutes. Three stars.