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Dustin Putman

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Sydney White  (2007)
2 Stars
Directed by Joe Nussbaum
Cast: Amanda Bynes, Sara Paxton, Matt Long, Jack Carpenter, Jeremy Howard, John Schneider, Crystal Hunt, Samm Levine, Arnie Pantoja, Danny Strong, Adam Hendershott, David Skyler, Donte Bonner.
2007 – 109 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for some language and sexual humor).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 30, 2007.
"Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" gets a modern-day makeover in "Sydney White," a part-bland, part-imaginative college comedy that does for the classic fairy tale what 2004's Hilary Duff-starrer "A Cinderella Story" did for its respective glass slipper saga. This time the title role goes to Amanda Bynes (2007's "Hairspray"), a winning if not terribly eclectic performer who curiously trades in the fair skin of Snow White for an unnatural-looking, orangey fake tan. In the director's seat is Joe Nussbaum (2004's "Sleepover"), who clearly has a thing for female-empowerment stories. He knows how to make a pleasant, bouncy, lightweight good time, and it is with this energy (and a dash of sweet-natured moralizing, to boot) that his latest picture engages as much as it does.

The tomboyish, comic-collecting daughter of a hard-working plumber (John Schneider) and a deceased mother, Sydney White (Amanda Bynes) leaves her hometown behind when she wins a scholarship to Southern Atlantic University. Hoping to join the same sorority that her mom did in a bid to feel closer to her, Sydney's rocky initiation, lorded over by snooty, vindictive house queen Rachel Witchburn (Sara Paxton), turns out to be nothing like she expected. Abruptly tossed out of the sorority and with nowhere to go, Sydney is invited to live in a run-down communal house known as the Vortex—the living quarters for the campus' otherwise rejected—and befriends the seven so-called "dorks" who also reside there. With Sydney starting to date nice-guy frat brother Tyler Prince (Matt Long)—Rachel's middle-school ex—and garner widespread popularity by being herself and refusing to conform, the jealousy-fueled Rachel sets out to sabotage her rival's life any way she knows how.

"Sydney White" falls into the trap of commonplace plotting—why must every teen flick have a misunderstanding between love interests that ends with one of them fruitlessly spouting, "Please let me explain," while the other runs off into the distance to pout?—and a few instances of out-of-place stereotyping. For example, the stock portrayals of Hasidic Jews and transsexuals, while playing a part in an overall solid message, may well offend some viewers. Moreover, as a comedy, it is funnier in an occasional smile-and-nod way than it is a laugh riot. Amanda Bynes' 2006 effort, "She's the Man," was more successful on this count. For a while, "Sydney White" flutters on its merry way, not bad in the least but also not really standing out from the crowd of similar pictures.

And then, steadily, the film's earnest charms sneak up on you. The revisionist take on "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" is savvily incorporated into the story by first-time screenwriter Chad Gomez Creasey. In-jokes and references to the original source material are prevalent, and the way in which Sydney is presented a poisoned apple from Rachel is nothing short of ingenious. Meanwhile, the characters are endearing if uncomplicated types, with each of the seven dorks satisfactorily individualizing their personalities. The romance that evolves between Sydney and Tyler is predictable but sweet, partially because Tyler is such a believably and genuinely good-hearted guy, and also because he serenades her in one scene with Bad English's quixotic "When I See You Smile." The climax, a celebration of diversity that leads to the necessary people getting one-upped by intellect over juvenile pettiness, is particularly gratifying without being overtly syrupy.

Amanda Bynes is her reliably bright, sunshiny self as heroine Sydney White. She still hasn't perfected her close-up reaction shots—subtlety is not her forte; wide-eyed wide eyes are—but how can one complain about a well-scrubbed young actress who does professional work and isn't out clubbing and going to rehab every few weeks? As archnemesis Rachel Witchburn, the frequently typecast Sara Paxton (2006's "Aquamarine") is great at being nasty because she is able to also bring a sense of humor to the role. As Tyler Prince, Matt Long (2007's "Ghost Rider") is a bit snappier than the usual dullard of a love interest and does well working off of Bynes. Also worthy of notice is feature-film newcomer Crystal Hunt, an utter delight for every second she is on screen as Dinky, the southern sorority pledge whom Sydney befriends. For someone whose biggest past credit is a recurring stint on the daytime soap opera, "The Guiding Light," Hunt's mere presence is like a beacon of warm light.

Is "Sydney White" groundbreaking? No. Is it an example of great teen-oriented fare? Not a chance. When 2007 is over and done, the film will not be a standout of the genre—it's certainly no "Superbad"—but it is more clever than expected in some of its narrative details and is far from being the materialistic, asinine junk that the recent "Bratz" was. Whereas this same plot could be dumbed down to a monotonous degree, director Joe Nussbaum reels the broader elements back when need be and never loses sight of the truth behind his autumn-haired protagonist, a positive role model who sees people for who they are rather than what they have or look like. Sydney White might not physically resemble Snow White, but the classic character's value system thankfully has not been lost in translation.
© 2007 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman