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Samantha or "Sam", has a rough childhood with her father dying in an earthquake and a new stepmother with two awful stepdaughters. But on the bright side, Sam has an awesome best friend named Carter and an email relationship with a guy named Nomad. One day, Sam gets an email from her Nomad saying that he wants to meet her in the middle of the dance floor at their high school Halloween dance. She accepts the invitation and glides into the room wearing the best outfit ever! Her Nomad takes her outside where they share a romantic dance together and Sam realizes that her email friend is the most popular guy in school, Austin Ames. She runs back to her stepmother's diner before she knows she went to the dance and drops her phone on the way. Austin finds it and starts a search for his Cinderella. Written by
Great as a Cinderella story; just so-so as a high school rom-com
I haven't looked at other reviews of A Cinderella Story yet, but especially because it's a Hilary Duff film, I'd expect there to be a lot of scathing comments. That's because Hilary Duff is, or was, at least, popular with tweens and teens, and lots of slightly older folks have a tendency to hate commercial or popular stuff just because it's commercial or popular. Of course, they find other ways to justify their effectively institutional hatred of this stuff, and I'd guess that the main complaint would be the clichéd and predictable nature of the material here.
And that's true. A Cinderella Story is clichéd and predictable, but that's not a great reason to dislike it. It is a Cinderella story, after all--it tells you right there in the title--retooled as a contemporary Los Angeles-area high school romance-comedy. We all know the Cinderella story fairly well. And any film fan at least old enough to almost be through with high school is surely familiar with the clichés of rom-coms and high school films. Most of us could write the basics of A Cinderella Story's plot without even seeing the film's trailer. So for adults, at least, A Cinderella Story is going to be successful or not dependent on how well it hikes its well-trodden path.
For me, the best material was the more traditional Cinderella-based stuff. Jennifer Coolidge (voluptuously) fills the role of the wicked stepmother. I like Coolidge a lot. She has tremendous charisma and performs her infamous, quirky sarcastic act here with verve. I also like Duff. The two actresses playing Duff's stepsisters were new to me, but just as charismatic as Coolidge. Director Mark Rosman quotes some of the cartoonish visual gags of Disney's Cinderella (1950) more than I expected, and it works amazingly well. It's one element that pushes the film into a welcomed, absurd-surreal territory.
What didn't work as well for me was the material when Rosman and credited writer Leigh Dunlap forgot about doing a pumped up remake of Cinderella. Too much of A Cinderella Story deals with Sam's (Duff) budding cyber-romance, her typical high school problems and the caricatured, stereotypical high school cliques. It's not that these other segments are bad, exactly, but they just don't have the spark or humor that the Cinderella material has, and especially for something like the cliques, we've seen this tens of times before. These scenes would be right at home if we edited them into any of those other films or television shows--sometimes I had to remind myself that I wasn't watching, say, a Cordelia scene from the first season of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (1997).
So A Cinderella Story has a bit of a split personality--as a funny and wacky remake of Cinderella and as a far less humorous, pretty generic "getting through adolescence and finding yourself" message film. That After-School-Special-styled message may be a worthy one, but intercut with a great version of Cinderella, it doesn't quite fit, even though Rosman does finally start to find a unique and admirable groove while still alternating modes towards the end of the film.
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