One might tell people considering going to “Raise Your Voice” to lower their expectations–except that it’s a Hilary Duff movie (a species that seems to be released every couple of weeks nowadays, although some of them might actually feature Hilaryclones instead of the authentic item), and your expectations would already have to be at basement level. Duff can’t act, and she can’t sing. (Happily, she doesn’t try to dance, so she’s not a triple threat.) Still, it’s telling that a bit over an hour into the flick, a mime makes an appearance. Mimes, as we all know, mark the death knell of any movie in which they appear, and so with more than forty minutes still to go this duffer has one foot in the grave.
“Raise Your Voice,” at least, isn’t just another straight variant of the Cinderella story. That is, while it’s still about a waifish girl who overcomes all obstacles to link up with a prince-like fellow while “finding herself” in the modern feminist way, it doesn’t opt for a wicked stepmother and all the other paraphernalia like “Ella Enchanted” and “A Cinderella Story” did. The heroine this time around is Terri Fletcher (Duff), a perky Arizona highschooler who’s a member of her church choir and who’s just, as Gene Kelly might once have said, “gotta sing!” As summer begins, she suffers a tragedy–her older brother Paul (Jason Ritter, doing what’s essentially a reprise of his regular role in “Joan of Arcadia,” but without the wheelchair) dies in an auto accident in which she’s also injured. (She blames herself, since she lured him out that night for a graduation concert even though he was grounded.) At the same time, her overprotective father Simon (David Keith) says that his sixteen-year old “little girl” will under no circumstances be attending a Los Angeles music school to which she’s applied for a summer camp. (There’s something vaguely unsettling about the depth of Simon’s attachment to Terri, though one can be sure nothing’s meant by it. It’s just the times in which we live.) Nonetheless Terri is accepted into the school–largely as a result of her brother’s enthusiastic support of her application, we’ll later learn–and her mother Frances (Rita Wilson) and misfit aunt Nina (Rebecca De Mornay) dupe Simon into letting her go (ostensibly to visit the aunt rather than attend the camp). In L.A., the retiring, homespun Terri is like a fish out of water, but she eventually overcomes the guilt over her brother’s death to blossom as a singer. She also bonds with her obligatory attitudinal black roommate Denise (Dana Davis), while linking up romantically with Jay (Oliver James), a punk-garbed but entirely sweet composer/guitarist who needs somebody (like Terri) to write lyrics for his melodies and sing while he plays, even though he’s the object of affection on the part of Terri’s inevitable rival Robin (Lauren C. Mayhew), the bitchy diva who thinks she’s prettier and more talented that Terri could ever hope to be. Our Girl also acts the matchmaker, bringing together a most unlikely couple: Kiwi (Johnny K. Lewis, desperately trying to channel the Anthony Michael Hall of the John Hughes years), a goofy percussionist, and Sloane (Kat Dennings), a sternly odd pianist who appears to be another offspring of the Addams family. Lurking in the background is Terri’s voice teacher (John Corbett), apparently some sort of refugee from a hippie commune, who trains his charges in singing (extraordinarily badly) choral bits from Handel’s “Messiah.” It was only a few days ago that Corbett announced his desire to quit acting, and after watching the poor man embarrass himself in this hopeless role one can understand why.
One has to suspend disbelief to an almost incredible degree to swallow any of this movie. The biggest hurdle to accept that Duff, with her thin, strangulated voice, could ever be accepted to a prestigious music program, let alone dominate it. And it’s impossible to believe that the music the students perform at the school–glossy bubble-gum stuff of the most innocuous sort–would be thought to have any quality by the faculty of such a school. But even if one can get past those problems, the movie utterly fails to dramatize the story’s serious elements in more than a cookie-cutter way. To use the emotional impact of a sibling’s death in as facile a fashion as “Raise Your Voice” does is little less than unseemly. And though the issue of faith is raised periodically–as in Terri’s devotion to her church choir and her prizing a silver cross that Paul wore–there’s never any depth to the treatment; the movie uses these matters like mere decorations, in the way so many people sport Christian symbols although the lives they lead have little or nothing to do with any real religious belief. The failure of the picture to wrestle with all these matters successfully is the fault of Sam Schreiber’s screenplay, of course, but also of the uneasy hand applied by helmer Sean McNamara (who also appears in a cameo as a doctor); he’s mostly done episodic children’s TV programs up to this point and can’t seem to make the leap to features. (The fact that the movie also has six producers might also be troublesome. Just too many cooks.) Technically “Raise Your Voice” is okay, though hardly delightful to behold; and all the establishing montages of L.A. get really tiresome fast.
A final point. This must be the six thousandth or so movie in which the heroine sings that peppy old song “Walking on Sunshine.” We really need a moratorium on its use; it seems like only cameos by Jay Leno, the new Larry King, are more numerous nowadays. Cease and desist, already.