Squeaky-clean Hilary Duff’s latest movie plays like a cross between a Disney-fied music video and a script developed by girls playing with Barbies. So, it will please its target audience of tween girls while leaving parents relieved, if not entertained.
Duff plays 16-year-old Terri, a good girl whose loving older brother Paul (Jason Ritter) tells her not to be such a pleaser. He wants her to fight back when their over-protective father (David Keith) won’t let her go to the summer music program of her dreams. Even though Paul is grounded, he and Terri sneak out to go to a rock concert. On the way home, their car is hit by a drunk driver, and Paul is killed. Terri’s father becomes even more strict. When she is accepted into the program her mother (Rita Wilson) and aunt (Rebecca De Mornay) conspire to find a way for her enroll. Her father thinks she is visiting her aunt.
The program is more challenging than Terri could have imagined, filled with highly focused and very talented kids. But she makes some friends, especially a handsome composer (Oliver James, essentially reprising his perfect boyfriend with an English accent role from What a Girl Wants) and her violinist roommate, Denise (Dana Davis). It is a competitive group, especially when it comes to who gets the solo in the big choral performance and who will win that $10,000 scholarship at the end of the summer.
Duff has more hairdos than facial expressions, but the movie is designed around the one she has down pat, a sort of sweet, slightly abashed, “Gosh, can I really do this? Look how adorable it is that I don’t know I’m adorable” sort of look. It does not go well when she tries to go beyond her range, as when she has to learn that her brother has died or confront someone she thinks has betrayed her, and especially in one painful moment when she tries to act “street.” Similarly, the music is designed around her slight but sweet pop voice. If the studio-enhanced dubbing is a bit too obvious in the classroom scenes, it fits with the bubble-gumminess of the tunes and the story.
Parents should know that the movie includes the death of a major character in a drunk driving accident. This is powerfully, but not graphically depicted and may make the movie too much for under-10’s or even some sensitive under-12’s. An adult character responds to a stressful situation by saying, “I need a drink” and an underage character gets drunk when he is upset over a misunderstanding. There is some PG-level language. The movie makes it clear that Terri thinks carefully about whether she is ready to kiss a boy, even though it is someone she really cares about. Another girl makes a reference to being “bad” to get the boy she likes, but it does not work. Other strengths of the movie include loyalty and friendship among diverse characters and (very unusual in a mainstream film) respectful treatment of religious faith. It has a rare depiction of a young person going to church to get help during a painful time, handled in a low-key manner but making it clear that Terri’s faith is an important source of solace for her.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Terri’s father is so strict. Why was it easier for Paul to speak up than for Terri? What should Terri have done when her mother and aunt told her to lie to her father about where she was? What did Terri like best about the music program? How did her brother and her teacher give her a chance to see things within herself that she did not see before? Why didn’t Jay like Robin anymore?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Duff’s other films, The Lizzie McGuire Movie and A Cinderella Story. They might also enjoy comparing them to the original Gidget. Mature audiences will enjoy Fame a lively film about a high school for the performing arts.