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Beauty follows from perception, and one of the ironies of life that gets caught frequently on film is that those who see themselves in such a fair light often prove to be quite the opposite.
This movie, "Beautiful", is kind on its subject - another in a rash of films recently dealing with beauty pageants (see Drop Dead Gorgeous, Miss Congeniality, and Happy, Texas). It's easy to see these contestants as shallow folk. Beautiful aims to make human one particular contestant, and have us consider where such shallowness might originate.
The film is split into three main parts. We first meet Mona as a child, and she already has the bug. Her dysfunctional family does not relate to her obsession and Mona learns to assert herself to get what she wants, and often this takes the form of ethically questionable practices. At last, Mona finds a friend in Ruby, who is similarly obsessed with sewing costumes at this age. Usually a segment like this would only take us as far as the first act break - and actually, deciding where that break lies in this film is somewhat difficult. My own feeling is that the story is already well on its way before we skip ahead to an adult Mona, but some would argue the critical point is as far ahead as the start of the third segment.
Our second part is short and lasts barely long enough to see that Mona and Ruby have moved into together as young adults, that Mona is a bit promiscuous, and to give a fairly strong hint that she's pregnant. We've already been told that contestants in the Miss American Miss pageant can be neither mothers nor legal guardians.
Flash forward seven years, and this problem is clearly dealt with. Blonde-haired Ruby is mother to brown-haired Vanessa, while still rooming with Mona... with brown hair. Mona still enters contests, and is more or less just a grown up version of her youthful self. And now that there is a potential obstacle set up for her, Mona now has success in her pageants. She becomes Miss Illinois, which automatically puts her in the national Miss American Miss.
While Mona is busy performing her Miss Illinois duties, Ruby gets conveniently (for the plot) thrown in jail (she's not guilty, but it looks bad). This leaves Mona and Vanessa together, finding out more about each other. Even though they've lived together these seven years, Mona has been occupied by her own priorities so much, she doesn't really know the child... and this delicious irony is played out pretty well for a while.
Mona freaks out with the pageant coming up. Vanessa becomes a bit of a parenting figure. They end up going to the pageant together, to fairly predictable scenes of awkwardly claiming they are not related. And, in case you don't see it coming, there are some truths just ripe to be told at just the worst time.
The film depends a lot on the relationship between Mona and Ruby, and I'm afraid it failed in that respect for me. It's partly the script's fault for not spending the time on it. Though, to a degree, the script is notable for deftly taking its time to address Vanessa's parentage, I think it was a mistake to allow the friendship to go unchallenged for so long. On top of the script being weak here, the character of Mona is flighty, and not one to address difficult issues, so the onus falls upon the weaker character of Ruby. Now, I like Joey Lauren Adams, based on her role in one of my favorite films, Chasing Amy, but she fails to produce a miracle here, and maybe it would have required one, but I like to keep hope that actors can find little things to work off of in bad material.
The movie's explorations into Mona's character are interesting, but perhaps slightly long at the end. The script's unevenness shows further at that point as well, when a sideplot threatening to tear apart Mona's pageant hopes is rendered inconsequential (if you've seen this, this problem with the reporter is not so much that her threat is so easily dismissed, but that the relevance of her character was completely undercut).
There's a theme going on here that what's beautiful is really what's inside, how we deal with people, that sort of thing. They never hit us over the head with it too hard, and the ending fits into the theme fairly well. It's a fun film to watch, but there's just a few too many little flaws.
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