Politics & Policy

Duff Raises Her Voice

America's sweetheart grows up.

It would be impossible to overstate the enormous popularity of teen queen Hilary Duff–especially among young girls. While I was recently visiting some friends, it was casually mentioned to their daughters that I had seen Duff’s new movie, Raise Your Voice, and had spoken with Hilary. One of the little girls sighed and looked at me with her sparkling blue eyes and said, “Wow, you are so lucky. I want your job.”

Her adoration of 17-year-old Hilary Duff is shared by millions of kids. Duff’s solo album sold 4.8 million copies and her latest record debuted at #2 on the charts. Blender magazine calls her “a 21st-century Doris Day who sings and acts so winningly that it has garnered her a rumored $25 million fortune.” The studio didn’t make Raise Your Voice for me; they made it for the daughters of my friends. And I guarantee you that theaters are going to be packed with the girls who have grown up watching Duff as TV’s Lizzie McGuire for the last four or five years.

Smart dads will not only drive their daughters to the movie, they might want to actually sit in the back and catch the flick. The movie probes a handful of parent-child issues worth discussing: coping with death and tragedy, deceiving a parent, and pursuing your dreams.

Duff plays Terri Fletcher, a happy-go-lucky and vibrant girl who dreams of attending a prestigious music school in Los Angeles. Her mom (Rita Wilson), brother (Jason Ritter), and free-spirited aunt (Rebecca De Morney) cannot be more supportive. The one impediment to her dream is her dad (David Keith). He has all the lovability of Mussolini and all the charm of the male characters found on Lifetime. In other words, he is a cantankerous jerk and snuffs out her plans for music school.

Terri’s life further unravels when her brother is killed by a drunk driver while the two of them are coming home from a concert. Her dad becomes more protective and overbearing, while Terri begins to wilt as she becomes increasingly absorbed into a web of guilt over her brother’s death.

In the meantime, she had been accepted to the music school for a summer program. Her mom and aunt conspire to circumvent the dad’s decision by saying that Terri will be with Aunt Nina in Palm Desert for the month.

In the midst of the deception (over which Terri is riddled with guilt), she explores Los Angeles with an eccentric cast of pierced-lipped, magenta-haired, and tattooed classical-music students and Dead Poets Society-type instructors (John Corbett) who push and prod their young charges to be all that they can be. Of course, Terri also falls for a British, guitar-playing heartthrob (Oliver James).

“When I read the script I really loved it,” says Duff who glows with a million-dollar smile and a seemingly genuine sweetness. “I choose roles that are a little bit more mature without abandoning a younger audience. They are really important. I think a lot of people don’t realize that and they sit around and say, ‘I want to do this, and I want to show this.’ It is really important not to abandon them because they are going to grow up with you. I think this movie is more mature. It does show a different side of me.”

The role of Terri is definitely a step beyond that of her Lizzie McGuire character. But it is to be expected, especially when your entire adolescence has been captured on screen. “The thing I really love about it is that she is a really strong girl,” Duff says. “She chooses to persevere through this horrible thing that has happened to her, and she still goes on, and she still fights, and she still finds herself and learns about what she can do and about her dreams. I think that is important for girls–and boys.”

In an era of American Idol competitions and karaoke machines, the theme of Raise Your Voice will resonate with Duff fans. For older viewers, this romantic drama will seem like a cheesy and sanitized version of the 1980s movie and TV show, Fame.

Perhaps what is most surprising about the movie was its matter-of-fact handling of faith. Duff’s character is shown singing in a church choir, praying in a sanctuary, and a Celtic cross holds a significant iconic role in the movie. While dropping in religious images and references does not excuse the few, minor shortcomings of a film, it does signal a very interesting turn in our culture.

“I think that faith is a big piece of a lot of people’s lives and I think that it was nice to have a character for whom faith was simply a part of her life,” screenwriter Sam Schreiber confesses. “As she goes through her trials in the movie–of which there are many–she has something that she can lean on.”

Even though this is Schrieber’s first screenplay, he wasn’t shy about including a component of faith into this musical, coming-of-age film. Although he believes that Hollywood has given “short shrift” to faith in the past, he senses that things are changing.

“In the wake of movies like Passion and stuff like that you have seen a change in Hollywood where faith at one point was kind of a no-go zone and now it has a little bit of cha-ching to it,” he says. “It is certainly not going to do you any harm to incorporate it and it possibly might do you some good. Whereas previously, you might have steered away from it, and said, ‘Oh why do we really need that scene in the church,’ now you can say, ‘Okay, well that is acceptable for that character.’”

For her part, Duff does not shy away from her character’s dependence on faith. “When I was younger, we were very much churchgoers,” she admits. “Now that things have gotten a little bit busier and I have gotten a little bit older, I don’t necessarily think that you have to go to church to be a believer. I travel so much and I work so hard, but I have faith in that kind of thing and I pray all the time and I believe in God.”

While some may find Duff’s talk of faith a bit ambiguous, she may be far more indicative of the upcoming generation of young women–non-sectarian, but spiritually minded. The British edition of Cosmo magazine incorporated a spirituality column this year for the first time in its provocative history. “I’ve come to the painful realization that men and shoes are not enough to make me happy. The key to true contentment lies elsewhere,” wrote columnist Hannah Borno.

The same longing was felt at Seventeen magazine this year when they began including a faith column. “I feel, and had sensed that my readers felt, that there was an entire magazine that wasn’t speaking to a part of them,” editor-in-chief Atoosa Rubenstein has said. “I just noticed more and more that our readers were talking about their faith.”

Raise Your Voice is not meant to be evangelistic, but it may foretell a more realistic depiction of otherwise soul-less characters. The trick, of course, is doing it well. That will be a true test for future screen endeavors.

Schreiber believes that it will be very difficult for Hollywood to emulate the particular success of The Passion of the Christ. “I think it is like The Blair Witch Project. It is going to be one of these you can’t do again. It was done once, nobody saw it coming, and any attempt to replicate that is going to feel commercial and fake. But, I think that it did wake people up a little bit to something that exists.”

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News magazine and the creator of Thunderstruck.org.

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