'Pretty Bad Actress': Film Review

Thin despite layers of self-reference.

Nick Scown's comedy locks a disgraced child star in a room with her biggest fan.

A one-time Disney Channel star deals with stalkers and a stalled career in Pretty Bad Actress, Nick Scown's winking feature debut, casting Heather McComb as the train-wrecked thesp. Working some pretty well-covered ground with neither marquee value nor wit to attract attention, the broad laffer has slim theatrical appeal and will likely fare only slightly better on streaming platforms. It may be most valuable, in fact, for its star — who has had steady (if low-profile) work since her debut as the child lead of Francis Ford Coppola's segment in New York Stories and can congratulate herself for avoiding this character's sad fate.

McComb's Gloria used to play Trudie, the main character in a kids' show whose theme song remains lodged in fans' heads many years after it went off the air. One of the show's most ardent admirers, Stephanie Hodes' Dawnee, hardly seems old enough to have cared about such a dated series; nevertheless, she has a shrine to Gloria on her bedroom wall and refers to her fictional alter ego constantly in school projects. (Imagine a paper viewing the Holocaust through the lens of a plucky Disney kid's adventures.)

Gloria has faced the expected post-fame challenges: addiction to pills, public meltdowns, et cetera. But she's still pounding the pavement, taking whatever auditions she can get and trying to clean up her act — with little help from her agent, Al (Danny Woodburn), a cliche of 10-percenter self-interest. (We rarely see him when he's not getting a massage. When he meets a new client, the camera shares his leering interest in her breasts.)

After one especially humiliating audition, Gloria is abducted by a loner who seems modeled on Silence of the Lambs' Jame Gumb. Dawnee, who puzzlingly happens to arrive on the scene before the kidnapper leaves, gets thrown in the van as well. Soon, both women are tied up in the stranger's house — something of a dream come true for dorky Dawnee, who tries to be instrumental in attempts to escape.

While Gloria's long-suffering assistant Cheryl (Jillian Bell) tries to get a pair of apathetic cops to help locate the missing actress, Al sees an opportunity: He starts calling low-rent studio execs in an attempt to pitch a true-crime movie, based on this kidnapping, in which Gloria will star if she's ever rescued.

Scown's script wants to be clever here, with the execs' spitballing of possible plot ingredients mirroring what's happening across town, but the ideas don't have much comic kick and the timing doesn't work. A separate but related twist again pushes the film into meta-movie territory and works a bit better — if not in terms of laughs, then in maintaining viewers' interest in the lightweight action.

Heart-to-heart scenes between Dawnee and her idol stretch out long enough that one assumes Scown means for us to care more about the characters than most viewers are likely to. As sympathetic as we may be to an actress who's fighting for the opportunity to shake off her past and earn a living, the film is much less successful in making sense of Gloria's superfan — upon whose obsession the whole film rests.

Production company: RMS Films
Cast: Stephanie Hodes, Heather McComb, Jillian Bell, Danny Woodburn, John Hensley
Director-Screenwriter-Editor: Nick Scown
Producers: Ron Carlson, Rachel North
Executive producers: Mark Hodos
Director of photography: M.A. Santiago
Production designer: Ward Robinson
Costume designer: Andrew Salazar
Composer: Gregory Nicolett
Casting directors: Jennifer Levy, Emily Schweber

85 minutes