Middle school is miserable enough, but for Alice (Alyson Stoner) there are complications that are even more horrifying. She is brand new in town because her father (Luke Perry)
has just bought a music store in Silver Spring, Maryland, so they have moved away from everyone they know. She has gotten off on the wrong foot with just about everyone — a neighbor who is in her class in school (a muddy handshake and un-gracious rejection of her family’s gift of a meatloaf dinner), a boy from school (she accidentally opened the door to the changing room at the store and saw him in his boxers), and her terrifying new teacher, Mrs. Plotkin (Penny Marshall, in a welcome return to performing) by insisting that she was supposed to be moved to another class. But the most important reason she feels out of place (aside from being 11 years old) is that she misses her mother, who died when she was little, and her father does not want to talk about her.
Naylor and screenwriters Meghan Heritage and Sandy Tung have ably evoked the tumultuousness of 6th grade as Alice swings back and forth from misery to ecstasy and from over-confidence to utter humiliation and back again. When Miss Cole (Ashley Drane), the teacher she idealizes, directs the school play, Alice thinks all of her problems will be solved. All she needs to do is get the lead and fix the teacher up with her father so they can unite in marriage and in recognizing Alice as the fabulously talented, confident, and popular girl she knows she is destined to be.
Of course, that isn’t the way it all works out. Alice lapses into daydreams, forgets to do her homework, and finds that she did not inherit her mother’s gift for singing. But she also discovers that she can learn from her mistakes and that everyone deserves a second chance.
Stoner is an appealingly sincere young actress with a gift for comedy and “High School Musical’s” Lucas Grabeel is terrific as her older brother. Co-screenwriter Tung directs with enough respect for his characters and the audience that he lets everyone learn some lessons without having a sit-com resolution to every situation. It’s a fine family film, enthusiastically received when I introduced it at the Tallgrass Film Festival and I was delighted when it came in second for the festival’s audience award.