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Dustin Putman

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Raise Your Voice (2004)
2 Stars

Directed by Sean McNamara
Cast: Hilary Duff, Oliver James, Rita Wilson, David Keith, Rebecca De Mornay, Jason Ritter, John Corbett, Johnny K. Lewis, Dana Davis, Lauren Mayhew, Kat Dennings, James Avery, Davida Williams, Robert Trebor, Fred Meyers
2004 – 100 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for thematic elements and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 5, 2004.

Think of "Raise Your Voice" as "Camp"-lite, a glossier, more mannered version of that wonderful 2003 coming-of-age film about a performing arts summer camp. Directed by Sean McNamara, the film is, of course, another showcase for teen-celebrity-on-the-rise Hilary Duff (2004's "A Cinderella Story"), and like "A Cinderella Story," it further hints that the charming Duff may just have the acting chops for more challenging projects in her future. She carries "Raise Your Voice" from frame one, is in almost every scene, and she does it with a depth and intelligence that most could have never have guessed by watching her in vapid trash like 2003's "Cheaper by the Dozen." Now that Duff is a veritable movie star, it would be interesting to see her try more diverse roles—like Mandy Moore's deliciously against-type turn in 2004's religious satire, "Saved!," for example.

Hilary Duff is 16-year-old Terri Fletcher, a native of Flagstaff, Arizona whose world comes crumbling down when she and her older brother, Paul (Jason Ritter)—her best friend—are involved in a car accident with a drunk driver. Paul, always the reigning champion of Terri's talent as a singer and songwriter, is killed, while Terri escapes mostly unharmed. When she is accepted into Los Angeles' illustrious musical arts school, Bristol-Hillman, for their summer program, Terri is coaxed into going by her mother, Frances (Rita Wilson), and aunt, Nina (Rebecca De Mornay), behind the back of her overbearing father, Simon (David Keith). Mostly, though, Terri goes because she knows Paul would have wanted her to. Now alone in a big city she doesn't know, living a dream that has seemingly come at an inopportune time, Terri must measure her worth and learn to build confidence next to her more experienced peers, all the while coming to terms with a tragic loss that she can't help but blame herself for.

"Raise Your Voice" dangerously straddles the line throughout between touching and sincere, and overwrought and cliche-ridden. The first-time screenplay by Sam Schreiber is perceptive and mature in the way it deals with the death of Terri's brother, and the regret, guilt, and total devastation that Terri experiences because of it. Having lost my own older brother, whom I was extremely close to, last year, the film was, indeed, about as accurate as a PG-rated film on the subject could be. Even when Terri enters into the summer program, begins to train her voice, and starts a delicate romance with musician classmate Jay (Oliver James), the memory of Paul truthfully stays near the forefront of her mind. In effect, "Raise Your Voice" rises above being a one-dimensional, disposable teen flick about a girl who wants to be a singer (2004's "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen" springs to mind), and becomes the more emphatic story of a girl coming to grips with a loss that can never again be filled, and learning to somehow move on with her life while gaining inner strength in the process.

Perhaps because he hasn't much experience in feature film work, director Sean McNamara's tendency toward heavy-handedness at key moments threatens to tarnish much of what is so good about "Raise Your Voice." He too often overscores dramatic scenes with such bombastic, maudlin musical strings that they lose all forms of emotional subtlety. When he does away with the music and occasionally allows these scenes to play quietly, centering solely on the actors and their performances, the results are immeasurably more effective. Another sequence, in which Terri and her friends perform an impromptu song in front of a glistening city fountain, McNamara makes the bizarre decision to have a painted-faced mime come out of nowhere and swing sparklers in the foreground. It is also safe to say that everyone could have done without the shopworn, telegraphed-in-advance moment in which Terri catches Jay and prissy ex-girlfriend Robin (Lauren Mayhew) kissing and misreads the situation; in actuality, Robin had just forced herself on Jay at the precise moment Terri walked into the room. There are instances like this that, in the wrong frame of mind, produce bad laughs, a shame because what surrounds them exceeds expectations.

As the uncertain, still-grieving Terri, Hilary Duff is plausible and dedicated in her most dramatic role, to date. Recently finding added success as a singer herself, Duff is also given ample opportunities to stretch her vocal cords. While there is still room for improvement in the acting arena—she could benefit from moving away from some affected, head-tilting mannerisms—Duff is gradually improving nicely. Jason Ritter (2003's "Freddy vs. Jason") is exquisite in the brief, but pivotal, part of brother Paul, whose innate kindness and the bond he shares with Terri are beautifully captured and lend more weight to the rest of the picture. Strong support is given by John Corbett (2004's "Raising Helen"), as Terri's inspirational bohemian music teacher; Rita Wilson (2001's "The Glass House") and David Keith (2003's "Daredevil"), as Terri's parents; Rebecca De Mornay (2003's "Identity"), as her close, artsy aunt; and Oliver James (2003's "What a Girl Wants"), as love interest Jay.

"Raise Your Voice" is so pure at heart that, even with its over-the-top moments and cliches, one is willing to forgive the flaws and admire all that it achieves. The climax, set during the music program's solo showcases, sees Terri getting up in front of a large crowd, putting down her defenses and insecurities, and winningly performing a song that she dedicates to her brother. It's a fairly enchanting moment because it means something more to Terri—and to the viewer—than the genre usually garners. "Raise Your Voice," despite having the misfortune of a name that sounds more like a movie's sappy tagline than an actual title, is a likable coming-of-age drama, warts and all. Most refreshingly, it proves to have more on its mind than teenybopper fans of Hilary Duff will probably be expecting.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman