“Raise Your Voice” resurrects the teen empowerment-through creative-expression genre, and, though it brings little new to the formula, the Hilary Duff vehicle draws effectively on her musical talent and popular appeal. Whereas Duff’s Lizzie McGuire persona catered to the female “tween” demographic, new pic, whose themes include young love and the somber topic of death, is meant to woo a slightly older audience and position Duff for more mature roles. Item, which falls well short of a “Fame” for the new millennium, should perform solidly, if perhaps not spectacularly, at the B.O.
Duff’s Terri Fletcher hails from a long line of youths for whom creative expression yields both self-realization and escape from an overprotective or domineering parent figure (Jennifer Grey in “Dirty Dancing,” Kevin Bacon in “Footloose,” etc.). Gifted singer Terri longs to attend a performing arts summer school in Los Angeles, but her father, Simon (David Keith), insists L.A. is no place for a 16-year-old girl from Flagstaff.
Terri’s supportive brother Paul (Jason Ritter), however, tells her if she doesn’t pursue her goals now, she’ll find herself “doing ‘Cats’ at the Y at 40.” Without Terri’s knowledge, Paul has compiled video footage of her performing and sent it to the arts school to buttress her application.
Minutes into the film, tragedy strikes when Paul — possibly the most agreeable sibling in movie history — dies in a car accident. The film’s subsequent repeated use of Paul’s death as a narrative axis, however, feels manipulative and contrived.
Terri abandons her musical dreams after Paul dies, but, when an acceptance letter from the Bristol-Hilliman Conservatory arrives, Terri’s free-spirited Aunt Nina (Rebecca DeMornay) and mother, Frances (Rita Wilson), insist the summer program would do her good.
Telling father Simon that Terri is off to visit Aunt Nina in Palm Desert, mother Frances puts her on a train with a cell phone and a hug.
Terri arrives in L.A., and, in contrast to her hometown’s bucolic charm, Los Angeles couldn’t seem more like Sodom and Gomorra. Sleazy streetwalkers and congested intersections supplant green lawns and backyard barbecues; hard-edged rock replaces soft piano chords on the soundtrack. The contrast is so stark it feels like a cheap shot, but it makes the point: Terri’s not in Kansas — er, Arizona — anymore.
Upon her arrival at Bristol-Hilliman, Terri meets the students destined to become her friends and rivals: Jay (Oliver James), the cute boy with the British accent; Robin (Lauren C. Mayhew), the haughty vixen he once dated; Denise (Dana Davis), the seriously talented African-American violin-playing roommate; and Sloane, (Kat Dennings), the Goth pianist who’s caught the eye of budding percussionist Kiwi (Johnny Lewis).
Several characters fall into facile archetypes, including faculty members, principally John Corbett’s sympathetic Mr. Torvald and Robert Trebor’s stern Mr. Wesson. And it should come as no surprise that the term ends with a performance contest in which contestants vie for a scholarship.
Plot points are predictable: Love blossoms between Terri and Jay but Robin poses a threat; Terri must regain her self-confidence and love of singing following her brother’s death; dad Simon discovers the ruse and arrives at the conservatory minutes before the final performance to demand Terri’s prompt return home.
But this is a teen empowerment fantasy, and before you can say, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” Terri has found her voice and the courage to stand up to her dad. Altogether, “Raise Your Voice” is pretty innocuous stuff. It’s nowhere near as exhilarating as “Fame” or even “Flashdance,” and Terri’s performance skills are less awe-inspiring than the plot requires. Much more impressive are the musical abilities of Davis, who does things with an acoustic violin few have ever seen or heard.
Duff makes an engaging heroine, but her immaculately coifed blonde locks and undiminished lip gloss (worn even while sleeping!)remind viewers just how much of a star vehicle this actually is. Perhaps had it truly been an ensemble piece, “Raise Your Voice” might have raised the bar.
Tech elements are uniformly solid.