One day this summer, sitting in a blank white apartment that was not mine, I felt a strange weariness. This apartment was full of more books than I will probably ever read and I had fellowships to apply to and emails to write and the whole Internet in front of me and all of New York City clamoring outside. But I didn’t want to do anything at all. This kind of leaden feeling anchors me to my bed a lot in the summer. When it sinks into me I usually turn to the least intellectually taxing activity I know, which is watching movie trailers in search of a movie that will definitely not evoke any excess emotion. That night, I latched onto the trailer for a movie called The Pretty One, which featured upbeat acoustic music over a montage of quippy one-liners, so I figured I was in for one or two hours of faux-quirky fun. I was utterly wrong.
In the movie, Zoe Kazan (the writer and female lead of Ruby Sparks) plays identical twins Laurel and Audrey, the latter of which is unmistakably the titular pretty one. As Laurel, Kazan is made up and dressed to look dowdy (insofar as it’s possible for Zoe Kazan to be dowdy), while Audrey is stylish and confident. As you might expect, people treat Laurel as an afterthought while Audrey is the center of attention. The boy who takes Laurel’s long-lived virginity during the film’s cold open has actually loved Audrey for years and is using Laurel as the next best thing. Despite what these basic premises would suggest, this is a comedy.
The main plot is triggered by a car crash in which Audrey dies but is mistaken for her sister. Laurel is about to correct the mix-up, but she is wounded by the silence and indifference at the funeral for the “sad little bird” who just died. It serves as horrifying confirmation of what we all dread learning about ourselves: that other people don’t like us as much as we think they do. So Laurel decides to take Audrey’s place. Yes, it’s a comedy. Just bear with me.
Laurel-as-Audrey sheds her self-sabotaging shyness and mousy demeanor and strikes up a relationship with her neighbor Basel (New Girl’s Jake Johnson). Once the traditional rom-com plot mechanics kicked in, I expected to roll my eyes a lot, which is my default reaction to most Hollywood-minted love stories. But the dynamic between the characters was realistic, not in the way that makes you marvel at how well a piece of art imitates life, but in the way that makes you squirm.
At one point, Basel asks Laurel gently, as if handling someone’s broken limb, “What do you think—if you show me how you really feel then I’m not going to like you?” Laurel is practically speechless. She struggles to process his words just as much as the viewer does. It’s not a question so much as a statement, a simple but tender articulation of the single most potent fear you can feel while getting close to another person. Laurel is amazed Basel has taken the trouble of thinking about how she feels and talking about it in a way that’s kindly and comforting and soothes her fears. This kind of consideration is the bare minimum you could expect from a love interest in real life, let alone the romantic lead of a movie. But the viewer really feels how moving this moment is for Laurel because she’s been so lonely and neglected for so long.
What makes the movie’s love story so unexpectedly poignant is that it offers one of the most convincing portrayals of a woman with low self-esteem I have ever seen in a romantic film, or in any work of art. As I watched each interaction between these characters, watched each boundary break down, what compelled me was not the prospect of their romantic bliss (and implicitly a desire to attain such bliss myself), which is the usual hook that rom-coms sink into the viewer’s heart. Instead I was enthralled by Laurel’s vulnerability, how each incremental step forward in her relationship with Basel also deepens her fears. She reacts to Basel’s desire for her with growing tenderness and joy, but never sheds her sense of shocked surprise that someone really, truly wants her.
Laurel’s character is an oddity in the romantic comedy genre because the typical female lead has only the most unrealistic flaws, and if she lacks self-esteem or is romantically unsuccessful, it is never believable. Characters are termed “insecure” as a way of quickly and neatly propelling character development, but we are never shown what it means to be insecure. The kind of character that Kate Hudson might play is not convincing as someone insecure, someone who fears rejection and loneliness and neglect in a once-bitten-twice-shy kind of way. In real life, the weight of someone’s many accumulated disappointments is not just a backstory that comes up once as a plot point, never to be perceptible again. Being found not good enough piles up in your mind as evidence that you are not good enough and then it feels like everyone knows from the moment they meet you that you don’t like yourself. And it is in fact pretty obvious from the way you act and talk and even the way you stand at a party whether or not you like yourself.
Laurel is dragged down by more than her insecurities: she also carries a secret, that she is impersonating her dead sister. Like Chekhov’s gun, the secret enters the action to kick off the third act, just as Laurel is beginning to commit to Basel. All are horrified by what Laurel has done and many struggle to forgive her. But it was hard for me to see what Laurel did as heinous. The reason Laurel assumes Audrey’s identity is contained in the title of the movie: Audrey is the pretty one and that has made all the difference in her life. It was so obvious to me that I was frustrated by the other characters’ disgusted reactions. To be fair, the movie plays down Audrey’s death in order to give Laurel’s transformation more development and thus ends up treating the issue of Laurel’s bereavement somewhat glancingly. But this seems like a choice to pull back from portraying grief—a perennially popular topic for art—in order to focus on the less studied and smaller and twistier feeling of self-loathing.
In any case, the lack of focus on Audrey’s death perhaps unfairly makes Laurel’s impersonation of her seem less awful. But more importantly, what is the secret that Laurel carries—that she is not who she pretends to be—but a symbolic representation of impostor syndrome? Laurel’s decision to take her twin’s place is a desire to finally be the pretty one, to finally be the compelling, charismatic, attractive woman that she has always aspired to be—the kind of woman that society in general values more highly. And that is the truly painful wound this film pokes at. I cannot deny that nothing procures a woman charisma, social status, and admiration—in other words value—the way being attractive does. To be conscious of being less attractive than someone else, or not feeling attractive enough, can be debilitating.
In every friendship I’ve had where I was half of a tight-knit pair of girls, I don’t think I’ve ever been the Pretty One. I’ve been whatever the other one is—the Nerdy One, the Snarky One, sometimes the Smart One or even the One With Interesting Interests. This is not meant to be an appeal for compliments or pity. After all, in the movie, Audrey (the pretty one) and Laurel (the forgettable one) are played by the same person. This is important. Being the Pretty One is not about who actually has prettier features. Perhaps very few women feel as though they are the Pretty One relative to their friends, despite the obvious fact that in any group of two women, it is likely that one is slightly more conventionally beautiful than the other.
This film made me turn the issue over and over in my head: when you spend such a long time considering yourself not quite pretty, what does that do to you and to the way you interact with people? What are the consequences of all the times when I wondered why some guy liked this or that girl and not me, decided she was just more attractive, and filed that away as part of how I think of myself?
I guess it comes down to that drippy, overused buzzword: self-esteem. The way society values you shapes how you think of your own worth as a person. It’s easy to avoid thinking about because low self-esteem is acknowledged as a source of many people’s unhappiness, but it’s so often thought of as illogical and baffling—“but you’re so pretty!”—or irritating—“why don’t you just stop wallowing?”
The Pretty One hauntingly explores female self-esteem and the inescapable social forces that tend to erode it. The film also shows how your entire life suffers from your self-doubt and your belief that you are not good enough. It does not offer any false certainty that you can solve these deep problems or even successfully hide them.
That night, after I finished watching this movie, I had not overcome the mental tiredness that made my body heavy, and I felt something like sadness.