Once upon a time, there was a film called Sydney White and the Seven Dorks, which was a snappy little title that told folks immediately pretty much what the film was about: a modern-day retelling of the Snow White story (kinda like that Hilary Duff Cinderella film a couple years ago) with a dork element. You can practically hear the pitch meeting, can't you? "See, it's a modern Snow White, plus kind of a Revenge of the Nerds remake ... with a cute girl in the lead ... and it will take advantage of the currently popular 'dork' factor, too!" Sure, you can see why the idea got the greenlight, can't you? It has potential, if you have solid writing and just the right twist -- think more Clueless, and less -- way less -- of Duff's A Cinderella Story. Aim for smart instead of sappy, subtle and maybe a wee bit subversive. Unfortunately, that's not the movie director Joe Nussbaum made, so instead what we end up with is a mildly appealing teen comedy that could have been a lot better.
The film we end up with is Sydney White -- for some reason the studio decided to take off the "and the Seven Dorks" bit, a mistake, in my opinion, because the film's title is now so generic that a lot of people at the screening I attended were wondering before it started just what this movie was supposed to be about. By the end of the film, if you haven't figured out that the film is supposed to be a remake of a fairy tale, the film has walloped you about the head and shoulders with that point so frequently you'd have to be willfully not paying attention to miss it.
So, here's what we have here. Amanda Bynes stars as Sydney White, raised by wolves, er, men -- her father, a plumber, and his construction crew pals -- after the untimely death of her mother when she was just nine. As we enter the story, Sydney is about to head outside the only world she's ever known -- the world of blue collar guys, framing hammers and wolf whistles -- and into the mysterious kingdom of Southern Atlantic University (SAU), her mother's alma mater. Awaiting her at SAU is her mother's sorority house, Kappa Phi Nu, which Sydney has been waiting to join for half her life. At Kappa, Sydney is sure, she will find a way to bond with her long-lost mother, claim her sorority heritage, and, at last, find the connection to sisterhood that's been missing from her life. Her dorm roommate is the other Kappa "legacy" on campus, a Dallas blond named Dinky (Crystal Hunt) who has been waiting to join Kappa since her mama gave her a Kappa Barbie doll when she was five. It's good to have a goal in life, I guess.
Innocent Sydney will have a big hurdle to overcome in achieving her dream and living happily ever after, though -- the wicked queen of campus, Rachel Witchburn (Aquamarine's Sarah Paxton, who's actually quite good here taking a turn as the bad girl), whose magic mirror is her laptop computer, on which she constantly monitors her status on the school's "Hot or Not" Myspace page, where she's been Numero Uno since time out of mind. Also in the mix is Tyler Prince (Matt Long, who, at 27, is kind of pushing the outer limits of being an undergrad), the handsome prince, er, president of the Kappa's fraternity, the Betas. (And no, I'm not making these names up -- many things about Chad Creasey's script are just a little too cloyingly precious and obvious.)
Evil Rachel has set her sights on both nabbing Tyler and demolishing The Vortex, a dilapidated house designated as overflow housing for campus outcasts -- you guessed it, the home of the seven dorkiest coeds this side of Lambda Lambda Lambda. Guys like Lenny (who sneezes a lot), Ugandan student Embele, who hasn't gotten over jet lag after three years (that would make him "sleepy"), and everyone's favorite dork, Spanky, who, well, uses his hand a lot. You get the idea.
Right from the start, lovely, fresh-faced Sydney attracts the attention of Prince Charming and starts moving up on the Hot List without even trying. Naturally, Rachel wants to eliminate the competition, so she devises an wicked scheme to kick Sydney out of Kappa house on the night of the pledge ball. With nowhere else to go, guess where Sydney winds up? Yup, with the Dorks -- where, before you can say "wow, Amanda Bynes is looking really tan in this movie," Sydney has devised a scheme of her own: to unite the dorks under the heading of "Freedom to the 7th Power" and run them on a ticket for student council, with the goal of finally unseating the Greeks and taking back campus for the regular people.
So, here's the deal. The basic premise of the movie is fine; the message, especially to the tween and teen target market -- that you don't have to be blond and beautiful and cookie-cutter perfect to succeed, that it's okay (and even desirable) to embrace your uniqueness and be different, and that the little guys can stand up to and defeat the Rachel Witchburns of the world -- is a good one, and one that I'd like my own tween daughter to see more often in films. The film is rated PG-13, but it's going to attract the tweens as well, and the studio seems to be aware of that. There's nothing terribly risque here, other than a few verbal references to sex and masturbation.
There is, however, some blatant stereotyping in the film that goes beyond mere eye-rolling into being both annoying and offensive; SAU's Jewish student population, apparently, is comprised entirely of the filmmakers idea of what Hasidic Jews are like, so we get lots of dumpy Jews dressed in black and dancing around with ringlets dangling, while all the Jewish women are fat and uniformly unattractive. Nice. The Polynesian student population, meanwhile, doesn't appear to own any clothing that's not comprised of grass skirts and coconut bras, and don't get me started on the club for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and "Searching" students, or on the marked lack of students of color who are not prancing around in native attire.
Nonetheless, my 10-year-old daughter, who was my viewing partner for this film (and barometer for all things tween), thought Sydney White was great. The stereotyping eluded her -- but that's the whole point about cultural stereotypes in movies, that the demographic at which it's targeted don't realize they're being subjected to perspectives that can help shape how they view the world around them. Sydney, at least, is not an overly made-up co-ed with a rhinestone-studded cellphone; she doesn't fit in with the bottle-blond Kappas, but she learns that it's okay to be herself, and in fact she triumphs because of her uniqueness. That's not a bad message for teenagers to get.
My daughter and I also got into an interesting discussion on the drive home about Sydney's campaign strategy: The Greeks only comprise 20% of campus, but because they are united in solidarity they always win the student council elections. What Sydney figures out is that all the other diverse groups on campus, who are disenfranchised by the Greek system, may not have more than that 20% individually, but if she can find a way to unite them all behind a common cause, their collective vote will be enough to drive the Greeks out. There's a lesson here for the upcoming 2008 elections, so maybe some of the Democratic candidates will go see Sydney White and pick up some pointers.