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Raise Your Voice

Are you Duff enough? Well, are you?

Those who are will be out in force this weekend in support of ex-Lizzie McGuire star Hillary Duff latest film, Raise Your Voice.

This time out, Duff stars as Terri Fletcher, a small town girl whose life consists of music, friends, her brother, and going to school at Riverdale High in Flagstaff, Arizona.

A member of the choir, Duff surprisingly never stands apart from the crowd performance-wise. Instead, she blends into the group, complementing the choral arrangement of Three Dog Night's “Joy to the World” throughout the opening sequence

Her center stage status takes place mostly in her personal life. Her brother Paul (Jason Ritter), a recent high school graduate set to begin college at Arizona State, lavishes her with his attention almost to a level that feels just plain wrong. Following her around the house with his handheld video camera, Paul videotapes her impromptu concerts, singing to herself while brushing her hair in front of the mirror and so on.

We learn that Terri has ambitions to apply for a summer music program in the big scary metropolis that is Los Angeles. Along with Paul, Terri’s mother Frances (Rita Wilson) and aunt Nina (Rebecca De Mornay) both support her dream, but her father Simon (David Keith) has reservations. In what could be one of the most wooden performances in history, Keith grits his teeth and moans about the potential corruption of his daughter should she attend the program. He puts his foot down, as do all fathers in teen movies about dreams and discovery.

Paul’s defense of Terri leads to him being grounded, so that night he decides to edit together a video that will insure that she get accepted into the performing arts academy summer program.

Many teen “coming of age” films suffer from the same tired clichés, as do many reviews of teen “coming of age” films. This one, however, seems to walk the thin line between the credible and the contrived.

A night of celebration with her brother causes Terri to lose all of the joy she found in art. She no longer sings and seems content waiting tables in her father’s diner, rather than dream of a future in her music.

There is, of course, the tiny matter of Paul’s secret video. Terri is accepted to the program, and her mother and aunt decide to mislead her father into letting her “stay” with Nina in Palm Desert for the summer while she secretly attends the academy in hopes of winning the $10,000 scholarship they award one student each summer.

So let’s run through the checklist: 1) A small town girl with talent and a dream to rise above her small town roots, 2) A disapproving parent that needs to be won over, 3) A fish out of water tail.

So far we seem to be in familiar territory. The thing is, Duff never falls victim to the trappings of the teen genre. Sure, there is newfound romance and new obstacles to overcome in the process, but Sam Schrieber’s script plays fair throughout.

Navigating through tests such as sight-reading sheet music, performance anxiety, and moody classroom rivals, Terri turns to the few new friends she encounters, and her eccentric Music Teacher (John Corbett) for inspiration and reassurance.

The academy is like a musical zoo. The halls are filled with musicians who always seem to be either wielding a musical instrument or writing their next opus. Lunchtime consists of students sitting in a quad, jamming in unison. The irony is that their “jam session” lacks the spontaneity of on the spot music making as the music they make feels so…well, written.

Though given a list of rules that the students must abide by, after Principal Garrison (James Avery) introduces them to the students, neither the rules nor the principal are seen or heard from again until the final presentations at the end of the film.

There is a turning point midway through the film, in which the thematic threads are exposed enough to reveal the underlying message holding the film together. This is expressed via motivation from Terri’s new beau Jay (Oliver James) who encourages her to forget her troubled past, the strains of fitting in, and winning the scholarship and just focus on doing what you are there to do: finding what you came to find.

This pits music as an art of expression rather than a ticket out of small town life, or a steppingstone to success. The film has every opportunity to fall into the easy route of success and glamour, but Director Sean McNamara carefully sidesteps these plot mines. In the end, we are still witness to tired clichés and enough schmaltz to coat a wedding cake, but the result seems to work on a genuine level somehow.

In an age of marketed teenage sexuality and pop superstardom at the age of twelve, Raise Your Voice instead offers messages showing that one need not offer up their sexuality to gain acceptance without beating them over the audiences’ head.

Terri’s final performance on stage provides the emotional closure she so desires, but does not stand out as an exceptional showcase of Duff’s range as a vocalist. In fact, the whole thing feels far too canned and produced to be a legit live performance, but it gets the job done.

There are touches that make the film work, and there are others that drive it into the ground. Fans of music as an art form will delight with the attention paid to the creative process and the difficulty of learn to read sheet music. They will also cringe at the misuse of instruments and blatant lack of skill the actors exhibit at times as they pretend to play their instruments. Try to unearth the French horn in Terri and Jay’s final performance, then question why the band member with said instrument seems to be playing it with such fervor.


Mario Anima

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