I had three options today for a film that fit in both Kids Film Friday and Sports Movie Week. Two of them were about baseball, but I did baseball yesterday, so I figured I’d go for door number 3. A Disney flick, about figure skating. Don’t worry; I chased it with three episodes of Breaking Bad to get my testosterone levels back up.
Learning to skate… WITH SCIENCE!
Seventeen-year-old Casey Carlyle has been aiming to study physics at Harvard since she was a kid. As part of a project to get a scholarship, she begins analysing some local competitive figure skaters to develop formulae for the ideal moves. Soon watching the other girls isn’t enough, and Casey decides to have a go herself. Using her analysis and putting her years of skating on the pond behind her house to good use, Casey discovers a natural talent for figure skating. Soon she must choose which life she wants to live: one of dry academia, or one of the thrill of competition. Blisters ensue.
Watching this film this evening, I gradually became aware of something surprising. Something I truly did not see coming. It’s actually good. Well-written and directed, populated by rounded, developed characters played by talented actresses, I was honestly shocked.
Michelle Trachtenberg leads the way as Casey, the “Hollywood nerd”* science geek. The former Dawn Summers (whose sudden appearance in Sunnydale has got my roommate all kinds of perturbed, for those of you keeping up with Buffywatch. She keeps floating all sorts of random theories to explain it, while I keep insisting that Dawn’s been there the whole time. Hours of fun.) puts her years of ballet training to good use as a natural skater with a sudden passion to compete. It’s a decent role and she’s very good in it, but I thought Hayden Panattiere’s character was much richer dramatically. Gen Harwood – Gennifer, not General – starts off the movie as an apparent prototypical high school bitch, but turns out to be a young girl whose entire world has been ruled by her mother’s desire to make her a champion skater, at the expense of her getting any kind of life. She’s presented initially as Casey’s rival but their relationship develops into something much more realistic as the story progresses.
Kim Cattrall and Joan Cusack play the mothers of Gen and Casey, respectively. The hyper-competitive Tina Harwood is a former skater herself whose career ended in disgrace. She now owns the rink where the girls practice and is Gen’s and Casey’s coach. Joan Carlyle, on the other hand, is a feminist college lecturer who has been pushing Casey to go to Harvard. The two seem very different at first glance but are actually very similar. Both are single mothers and forceful influences on their daughters’ lives. Both are also trying to live vicariously through them and both are going to be in for a shock before the end of the movie.
While the writers haven’t abandoned cliché altogether – there are certain story conventions that must be observed for this sort of thing – it is refreshing to see a flick where the four main roles are all so clearly defined yet fluid at the same time. Each one of them goes through real changes, and develops in genuine, believable ways. It’s nice that there is no moustache-twirling (figuratively speaking) villain as well although someone does come pretty close at one point.
That’s not to say that Ice Princess is a five-star classic though. This isn’t the Citizen Kane of junior figure skating movies. There were times when the frustrated physicist in me was almost choking on his Frosties over some of Casey’s science babble, and the speed at which she goes from backyard pond skater to New England Championship is a bit of a stretch. I’m also somewhat curious about what alchemy it is that keeps said backyard pond frozen through the summer. The Carlyles live in Connecticut, not the wilds of Alaska. Other than Michelle and Hayden, the rest of the skaters featured in the film are actual competitive skaters, not actresses, so I’m guessing they’re basically playing themselves only with different names.
Much like Miss Pettigrew‘s Bharat Nalluri, director Tim Fywell is a British TV veteran who has worked on everything from soaps to primetime dramas. The man understands pacing and does a good job marshalling his mostly young cast. The skating scenes are well-shot too, using the actresses themselves whenever possible. The messages of choosing your own path in life (for the kids) and allowing your kids the space to choose their own path in life (for the mothers) are nothing new, but it is good to see them handled with some degree of finesse. This is one of the better films I have watched for Kids Film Friday, particularly in the last three or four months. I certainly wouldn’t mind screening this for my nieces, when they’re a bit older of course.
*In case you missed the memo, a Hollywood nerd is where the character is into science or comic boks or something and sees herself as plain or even ugly, but the actress is usually the most beautiful in the whole flick. This trope is even lampshaded at one point where Gen tricks Casey into coming to a party, still in her usual jeans and no makeup and with her hair clumsily tied back. When she complains, Gen pulls out Casey’s hairclip and tells her to shake it out. Casey ducks out of the close-up, shaking her head. When she stands back up she looks like she just stepped out of a shampoo ad. I’m going to assume this was planned to be a cheap gag, even if it is the only one in the movie.