The plot is not promising: Mona Hibbard (Colleen Rennison) is a cute but gawky 12-year-old from an unloving white-trash family. Mona has made it her life's ambition to be a beauty queen--a goal that both her looks and her offbeat instincts make unlikely. But through sheer perseverance, the "help" of a greedy trainer (Kathleen Turner), and the support of her best friend, Ruby (Jacqueline Steiger), Mona continues toward her goal. Unfortunately, this entails the use of a number of "dirty tricks": Mona is the victim of a few herself, but, unlike the other girls, she doesn't seem to know the difference between one-upmanship and genuine viciousness. When another girl co-opts her routine, she responds with an act of sabotage that improbably scars the girl's hands permanently. (This is, amazingly, played for laughs.)
Mona (who grows up to be Minnie Driver--glamorous, though still not really within the narrow looks range that beauty pageant judges usually respond to) and Ruby (who has turned into Joey Lauren Adams) become roommates, bound together by a secret: Mona, who has used sex (among her other schemes) to advance her ambitions, gives birth to a little girl named Vanessa (Hallie Kate Eisenberg). Since motherhood would disqualify her from the Miss American Miss pageant (the movie's thinly veiled stand-in for Miss America), Ruby, who now works at a nursing home for the elderly, pretends to be the child's mom. (This plot twist seems lifted straight from Soapdish, in which Field played the equivalent of the Mona character.)
While such a deception is unbelievably cold, it's also a relief: It's clear that Mona, self-absorbed, petty, and immature to a fault, would be the world's worst mom--even worse than her own neglectful parents. She's so childish that Ruby really acts as a mother to her as well as to Vanessa. (Many farcical moments and a few emotional ones are founded on everyone's recognition of the resemblance between Vanessa and Mona; this tends to backfire since Driver and Eisenberg, besides their curly hair, don't really look that much alike.) When Ruby is tossed in jail to await trial for an alleged mercy killing at the nursing home--in a courtroom scene that is stupidly unrealistic--Mona, who by now has been named Miss Illinois, is forced to face the big pageant without her. So of course she takes Vanessa, who is more of an adult than she is, to help her out.
Until near the end, one can't accuse Field of spinning a sugary fable; if anything, she bends too far in the other direction. We see only a tiny bit of the upbringing that makes Mona such a ruthless jerk. Yeah, her mom is inept at childrearing and ignores Mona in order to wait hand and foot on her worthless new husband; and, yeah, the husband clearly has sexual interest in Mona, though it's implied that he never quite acts on it. But the hideousness of her family life still doesn't quite justify how utterly unsympathetic a character Mona is. Or, more accurately, it may justify it, but it doesn't make it any easier for us to like her for even a moment. She is so self-involved it's hard not to hate her: Her entire reaction to Ruby's being tossed in jail centers on how she will be inconvenienced.
One wants to applaud Field for being so hard-edged, but it makes Mona's final turnaround--as you already could be sure, there is a Hollywood "happy ending"--unbelievable. The process of her discovering what's really important isn't drawn with enough clarity to make us fully accept her reformation. Still, despite an almost two-hour running time and a wholly loathsome main character, Beautiful is generally engaging. In addition to Field's unsentimental approach for most of its length, the film's other revelation is Eisenberg. Everybody loved this little actress as Christy, the underage director in a wonderfully clever series of Independent Film Channel spots, and as many people absolutely loathed her in her subsequent Pepsi commercials, where she was the grotesque demon child who could steal the voices of Mafiosi and soul divas alike. Here she just gets to play a character, and she's absolutely convincing.