Girls will love this fresh, funny, and sweet, update of the Cinderella story, and it might win some fans among their older siblings and parents as well.
High school senior Sam (Hilary Duff) lives in the San Fernando Valley with her mean stepmother, Fiona (Jennifer Coolidge) and stepsisters. After Sam’s adored father was killed in an earthquake, Fiona made her sleep in the attic and work every minute she is not at school in the family business, a diner.
Sam dreams of going to Princeton, but she needs Fiona to pay for it. So she does whatever Fiona tells her to. Fiona and the stepsisters do their best to make Sam feel oppressed and unworthy, but she gets a lot of support from the diner employees, especially restaurant manager Rhonda (Regina King), and from her best friend Carter (Dan Byrd). And she has an online relationship with a boy she met in a chatroom for Princeton hopefuls. But she does not know he is king-of-the-school Austin Ames, student body president and star quaterback. He does not know she is “Diner Girl” Sam, so unworthy of notice that she is all but invisible except when the cool kids make fun of her.
And then there is this school Halloween dance. Sam’s secret email-pal has invited her to meet him on the dance floor at 11. Fiona says Sam has to work and promises to be back by 12:00 to check, but Rhonda provides a dress and a mask and Carter has his father’s car and promises to get her home by midnight. So Sam goes to the ball, I mean party, and meets the prince, I mean quarterback. She rushes off without letting him know who she is, but she leaves behind…her cell phone.
Duff is not an actress but she has a winning personality and she makes a lovely Cinderella, sensitive, smart, honorable, and devoted. She knows what she wants and is willing to sacrifice her present happiness to get it. The always-welcome Regina King is a pleasure as the godmother-equivalent who provides more than a dress, and Jennifer Coolidge (Best in Show) makes the most of a one-note character as the evil step-mother, especially when explaining that her serene expression is the result of botox. Austin’s efforts to find his Cinderella and Sam’s struggles with Fiona go on longer than they should, but there is an old-fashioned happily ever after ending for everyone who deserves one, especially the girls in the audience.
Parents should know that there are some tense and sad moments, including the (off-camera) death of Sam’s father and emotional abuse by Fiona. The movie has some mild schoolyard language, brief potty humor, a comic scuffle, a joke about eating disorders and a somewhat casual attitude about cheating in school. Parents will want to talk to children who see this movie about the dangers of anonymous online relationships. Sam and Austin quickly confirm that they go to the same school, but even so, all children should know that they should not exchange personal information with someone they meet online. There is a sweet kiss. A strength of the movie is the portayal of loving and loyal relationships between diverse people.
Families who see this movie should talk about what made it possible for Sam to hold on to her dreams and her self-respect despite Fiona’s efforts to destroy them both. What was it about Sam that made her step-mother and step-sisters feel so threatened? Families should talk about the importance of really looking at people and really listening to them, too and about the importance of being willing to let others see you as you really are (which requires knowing yourself very well, too).
Families might like to explore the many versions of this story, starting with the original by Charles Perrault and some of the modern variations like Ella Enchanted and Ever After. They might also like to explore Tennyson, whose poetry is shared by Sam and Austin.