To say the new Hilary Duff movie, "A Cinderella Story," is deeply, proudly average shouldn't dissuade you from taking your daughters. I can't imagine anyone over 14 and not in full-on chaperone mode going to this high school revamp of the classic fairy tale on their own, but the film, by pleasantly, predictably hitting the sweet spot for the 'tweener crowd, hits a different sweet spot for parents. "Mean Girls" it's not; a plastic butter knife has more edge. But sometimes it's nice to know your kids won't cut their fingers.
Narrated by Duff with that winsome passive-aggressive shrug she put to good use on the Disney Channel's "Lizzie McGuire," "Cinderella Story" locates this princess in the San Fernando Valley, gives her a kindly widower father (Whip Hubley), marries him off to a blowzy shrew named Fiona (Jennifer Coolidge), then brings on the 1994 Northridge earthquake to do the old boy in (he dies offscreen, amid discreetly unconvincing rumbling).
Cut to eight years later, and Sam (Duff) is slaving away at the funky diner her father ran, now a salmon-pink eyesore owned by Fiona. There are the requisite stepsisters, one skinny and stupid (Madeline Zima), the other squat and mean (Andrea Avery). Unlike in the fairy tale (but much like Lizzie McGuire), Sam has a smart, unthreatening proto-nerd best friend named Carter (Dan Byrd) and, behind the diner counter, a support group of waitresses led by Rhonda (Regina King), who's resourceful enough to serve as a fairy godmother in a pinch.
And there's a prince -- you can't make a Hollywood movie for young girls without a bland, attentive prince, can you? (Well, can you?) Here his name is Austin Ames, and he's played by Chad Michael Murray, who brought the puppy love in "Freaky Friday" and who is easy on the eyes and light on the hormones. The movie presents Austin as a football god and student president who's out of Sam's league; in fact, he's a poet who wants to attend Princeton in spite of his jock dad's USC plans. Sam, too, wants to go to Princeton, but stepmother Fiona plots to keep her close at hand.
You read that right: This is a movie where parents don't want their kids to go to one of the top colleges in the country.
Here's more gritty realism for you: Austin and Sam have met cute in an online chat room and are woozy from weeks of innocent instant-messaging passion, but they know nothing about each other besides the fact they go to the same school. "Nomad" makes "PrincetnGrl18" promise to meet him on the floor of the big Halloween dance, but there's a snafu when witchy Fiona makes Sam work the late shift at the diner . . .
And so it goes, with fairy-tale parallels that are sometimes amusing (coach = Carter's dad's Mercedes) and sometimes strained (glass slipper = Sam's cellphone?). Because a modern 'tweener-girl movie also can't exist without a bitchy cheerleader and a soundtrack packed with sensitive, uptempo diet-rock, you get Austin's mean-girl girlfriend Shelby (Julie Gonzalo) and a playlist of songs as close to the "Freaky Friday" and "Lizzie McGuire Movie" CDs as can reasonably be managed. (The Haylie and Hilary Duff version of the Go-Gos' "Our Lips Are Sealed" gets prominent play.)
The jokes are broad. The acting is broader. The movie's take on IM romance is willfully naive (and why does the script keep calling it "e-mail"?). But at least the movie explores the limits of the high school caste system, goes easy on the rampant consumer fantasy, and features a heroine who's not a stick. For all I know, Hilary Duff snorts heroin with the Manson Family in real life, but onscreen she's as close to real as Hollywood dares get: a little chunky, a tad awkward, hopeful and hapless in equal measure. She can't act her way out of a sack, and so what? For the 14 minutes Duff has left in her career, the girls know she's one of them.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Cinderella Story
Directed by: Mark Rosman
Written by: Leigh Dunlap
Starring: Hilary Duff, Chad Michael Murray, Jennifer Coolidge, Regina King, Dan Byrd
At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs
Running time: 96 minutes
Rated: PG (mild language and innuendo)