Are there any movies about twins or doppelgangers that aren't creepy in some way? Maybe there are but it's not many, and their explorations of identity usually go down a dark path of ugly self-discovery. Even a sweet and somewhat cutesy rom-com like The Pretty One must overcome a gruesome premise before it heads into the light, but it gets plenty of help by Zoe Kazan's engaging lead performance.
Kazan pulls double-duty as twin sisters Audrey and Laurel. Audrey is "the pretty one"; outgoing, extroverted, glamorous, and living an exciting life in the big city. Laurel is basically her polar opposite; a mousy, poorly-dressed homebody who still lives with their Dad (John Carroll Lynch), helping him paint forgeries of famous paintings. While the sisters have a strong relationship, family gatherings prove awkward, serving to only highlight the vast differences between them. The boy next door, who Laurel has given her virginity to, still has eyes for Audrey. Laurel has resigned herself to a life of taking care of their dad, who has never quite gotten over the death of their mother.
Briefly losing its quirky edges, things get ugly after Audrey decides to rescue Laurel from her dull existence and take her back to the city, which sort of resembles a storybook version of Los Angeles. A make-over attempt goes awry when Laurel, lacking any true identity of her own, seeks out a look perfectly matching Audrey's. And, rather conveniently, it's just then that a terrible car accident kills Audrey, leaving Laurel in a coma. Upon awakening, Laurel learns that everyone thinks she's Audrey. Making the questionable decision to attend her own funeral; the lack of genuine emotion by the handful of attendees (including her father), forces Audrey to take the deception further. Leaving everything and everyone behind, she moves into Laurel's home and takes over her life. That means fending off the married guy (Ron Livingston) she's been having an affair with, and falling for Basil (Jake Johnson), the tenant Laurel apparently despised.
While the ease with which Laurel swaps identities is worryingly unbelievable, the film soon settles into a comfortable, romantic groove thanks to the unique chemistry between Kazan and Johnson. Kazan in particular is as good here as she was in Ruby Sparks, in which she played another character with a slippery personality. Here she weighs with a delicate balance Laurel's fear of an unfamiliar world, her pain over losing a beloved sister, and excitement over her new life, even if it isn't truly hers. Johnson, who has been on an indie hot streak with Safety not Guaranteed and Drinking Buddies, is endlessly likable as Basil. Underneath his thick beard, slacker attitude, and apparent body odor is a genuinely caring guy who can't seem to figure out why Audrey suddenly is interested in him.
Small in scope and awkward in tone, The Pretty One doesn't always marry up its melancholic side with the quirkier elements. When the situation starts getting serious again during a bittersweet latter stage, it’s tough to overlook just how screwed up the situation is and how many people have been hurt. First-time writer/director Jenée LaMarque doesn't fully deal with the gravity of Laurel's actions, but she has a great ear for dialogue and an eye for style. Plus, she's clearly capable of pulling emotive performances from her actors, a gift that will no doubt carry her far. Like its lead character, The Pretty One is a little unstable even as its charms are irresistible.