What draws us to certain actors?

Audiences and actors have a relationship that is hard to describe or dissect. When we watch someone over the span of years or even decades, we grow to have certain feelings about them, certain memories of them, and who we are at the various stages of their career plays into the way we feel when we think of them. There are actors who we see almost as our surrogates because we run parallel to them in terms of age and development. There are actors we see as father figures or even grandfather figures, who embody a certain something during the years we develop. There are actors we feel protective of, actors we despise, actors we look forward to seeing, actors whose work feels like a secret told only to us. One of the strangest parts of that relationship is that much of what we're responding to is actually due to the writers and the directors and the cinematographers and stunt doubles and editors and make-up artists and production designers and costumers, and the actor is simply a part of this impression that builds up over time. In some ways, they are a minority stakeholder in the thing that we respond to, but still, we hang those feelings on them.

Zoe Kazan comes from an entertainment dynasty, and when I first started reading articles about the stage work she was doing in New York, I admit… I was cynical. I had trouble separating the sort of predestined anointed one status of being a Kazan from the reviews I was reading, and I dismissed her work prematurely. And when she started appearing in films, it was easy to do that because, like any actor, she was at the mercy of the material. She booked roles in films like "The Savages" and "Frature" and "In The Valley Of Elah," and she seemed fine, but those aren't break-out roles. It was the one-two punch of "Revolutionary Road" and "The Exploding Girl," released within a year of each other, that finally reminded me that it is unfair to judge anyone based on family history, and that all that really matters in the end with an actor is what they do with the lines they're given. As soon as she got cast in roles that gave her room to build a character, to really establish some sense of voice, Kazan began to demonstrate what kind of choices she makes and just how particular her presence is.

In 2012, she co-wrote and co-starred in "Ruby Sparks," and she managed to take this verrrrrrrrrrry high concept character and invest her with a very real sense of humanity. Now, with "The Pretty One," writer/director Jenee LaMarque has given her another character to play that hinges on a pretty big buy-in, a dramatic contrivance that could be ham-handed if played wrong. LaMarque has a strong handle on what she's doing, though, and Kazan responds with a truly beautiful, nuanced and frequently hilarious piece of work.

Laurel (Kazan) is a very bruised young woman, and part of the problem is her twin sister, Audrey (also Kazan). It's not that Audrey wants to be a problem. She genuinely loves her sister, and she thinks she's got talent and heart and that she just needs to be encouraged. But Laurel was hurt deeply when their mother died, and she buried her grief in caring for their father Frank (John Carroll Lynch). Audrey's the one who got out, the one who made a life for herself, the one who seemed to be happy, the one who always won the prizes. In short, she was the pretty one.

When something happens that allows Laurel a chance to slip into Audrey's life, it is a chance for her to see what this life is that she feels passed her by, and it's an enormously clever way of doing a very different kind of twin movie. During the early scenes where Kazan plays both characters at once, it is seamless, and Kazan couldn't possibly look more like two totally different people. It's all about performance. All the styling in the world doesn't matter if you're not playing different people, and Kazan manages not only the trick of making Laurel and Audrey different, but also showing us signs of Laurel when she's pretending to be Audrey.

The movie works as an unusual romantic comedy, but it also works as a lovely piece about identity and how hard it is to escape the way we define ourselves. I've had plenty of moments in my life where I've wished that I could roll back all the choices I've made so I could start again with a blank slate. There are so many choices I wish I'd made differently, but how do I know that making them different would have made my life any more like what I wanted it to be? How can any of us know for sure what the sum total of our choices would be if we made them differently?

It would be easy to accuse Zoe Kazan of falling into a trope that I really don't care for, the "manic pixie dream girl" thing, but I think "Ruby Sparks" was a powerful refutation of that idea, and while "adorable" is one of the words I would certainly use to describe her here, she still strikes me as a fully-realized person, full of contradictions and imperfections. Part of the point of the film is seeing past someone's surface to what it is that genuinely defines them. Jake Johnson playes her love interest in the film, and it's a very different version of him than you see each week on "New Girl." Here, he plays a guy who doesn't fit any easy box, and he is a lot more together than the characters he's known for. He's the right match for her, sweet and with a childlike sense of play, but very grounded about relationships and what it takes to be with someone in a grown-up healthy way.

All in all, "The Pretty One" is a very small-scale low-key charmer, and it lingers thanks to a truly steller pair of central performances from Kazan, who I hope is still just beginning to show us what she's capable of onscreen. Bonus points for the cover version of the theme from "Tootsie" played over the closing credits, a choice that automatically makes me suspect that Jenee LaMarque is a damn fine person.

"The Pretty One" is in theaters in limited release, and will continue to roll out in more cities in the weeks ahead, with a VOD release set for a few months from now.