Terri (Hilary Duff) is a gifted 16-year-old singer from Arizona who has a chance to nurture her talents at a prestigious music school in Los Angeles. The only objection is from her father (a what-the-hell-am-I-doing-in-this? David Keith), but when her brother (Jason Ritter) is killed in an auto accident, Terri runs away with the help of her aunt (Rebecca De Mornay) to enroll in the school. Guided by hipster teachers (a loose John Corbett), and thwarted by potential boyfriends (a bizarre Oliver James) and malicious competition, Terri tries to overcome her fears and make her dream happen.
Last year, I suggested that tween superstar Hilary Duff should try a dramatic film to flex her acting wings. Sadly, I've lived to regret this statement. "Raise Your Voice" (IMDb listing) is a siren's song to the underappreciated youth of the world, where their quirks are accepted, their adolescent insecurities overcome, and their moment of triumph wins the world over, promising a greater future ahead. "Voice" is also the silliest, corniest, most obscenely-unaware-of-itself production to come from Ms. Duff yet. Watching it isn't exactly torture, but admitting that you've seen it, if you're over the age of 10, should be a criminal offense.
"Voice" is clearly a vanity film for the Duff Corporation. It's built to merge the enormously successful singing Hilary with the reliable acting Hilary in a cushy melodramatic feature that the starlet could handle with ease. Directed by veteran television helmer Sean McNamara, the filmmaker brings all the finesse of a…television director to the big screen. T.V. can get away with brothers dying epically, gorgeous Flagstaff, Arizona being portrayed as a "dead-end town," musical students prone to highly ridiculous impromptu jam sessions on campus steps, or the same students all looking like Hollywood-ready Good Charlotte wannabes (an oxymoron, I know). However, feature films need something with a little more substance and dramatic depth, and "Voice" doesn't have either. Simple earnestness is one thing, but this film makes "Touched by an Angel" look like David Mamet.
It's hard to dislike Duff, especially when she spends most of the film tugging down on her short skirt and other skimpy outfits as she wages a losing battle with the costume department. It's refreshing to see a teenage actress actually act like a teenager, with all those unpolished quirks and self-conscious traits. Duff has her charms, but "Voice" is written simplistically, leaving her to make acting choices that don't fit the character. Also, she has to contend with a screenplay that is very liberal with plot direction and completely bonkers with character arcs. Most distressing, all of Duff's vocals are dubbed (presumably by herself in a studio). This makes "Voice" a kind of "Flashdance" for 2004, where the film is about natural ability, yet every scene featuring that ability has been doctored. That should send a confusing message to the targeted demographic.
"Raise Your Voice" eventually veers so far into camp (Terri sprints into her dorm room in spastic tears not once, but twice) that it could make this film a midnight movie highlight for years to come, which is somewhat of a shame. Duff's heart was in the right place with "Voice," but the film is an immature, geeky disaster that does nothing to help nurture her good intentions.
Filmfodder Grade: D-