College Road Trip ostensibly charts a high-achieving senior’s battle against parental panic in her passage from adored daughter to Ivy League student. But its real focus is the treacherous, slippery ground of middle school girldom, where BFFs rule and even the coolest parents are a social liability. Here, there’s never an exclamation that isn’t a cacophony of screams, a change in expression that isn’t a mugging for the camera. And all father-daughter exchanges evoke discomforting Freudian shivers down the adult spine.
The daughter is 17-year-old Melanie (Raven-Symoné, last year dubbed the “$400 Million Dollar Woman” by Ebony magazine), her father James (Martin Lawrence), a successful professional (a police chief, in fact) who turns emotionally clueless the minute he’s granted 21st-century surveillance technology. He tracks his daughter’s every move via cell phone, fills shelf after shelf with videos of her since babyhood, and determines to the minute (40) the acceptable distance she may travel from home to enroll in college. Melanie tolerates his obsession with a weary maturity, wholly at odds to her reaction to every other event in the movie (a really loud shriek, accompanied by frenzied hand-waving, stray dance moves, and a lot of bouncing up and down).
The movie charts their road trip to deliver Melanie to a once-in-a-lifetime interview at distant Georgetown. Throughout, both parties chomp on the scenery in scenes that range from pained to sentimental to cloying. Supporting players appear to be inserted to amuse hapless family members who might find themselves dragged to this movie by their 12-year-old females: Melanie’s genius baby brother Trey (cute Eshaya Draper) plays chess with his pet pig, while her mother (Kym E. Whitley) proves a surprisingly sturdy foil to James’ excesses, tolerating her family’s antics in a way that echoes many working mothers. Even Grandma (Arnetia Walker) has a cameo, reminding James that he, too, once was young and ready to leave home.
But while far too much is said about the father-daughter dynamic, very little is said about their cultural milieu. As in so many Disney movies, conflict in College Road Trip is superficial, never threatening family solidarity. They live in a neverland of regulated racial coexistence, where friendships happily cross the color line, but white girls date white boys and black girls dates black boys. The patronage of a white judge impressed by her mock-court performance secures Melanie the bump from Georgetown’s wait list to its interview list.
On the other hand, the movie also quietly assumes that the black bourgeoisie have as much right to the pleasures (and parental pains) of the single-family, white-porch-and-plenty ‘burbs as their white counterparts, while the curvy Raven-Symoné is a very welcome alternative to the wan nymphet anorexics who headline most teen comedies and dramas. Perhaps worse, the movie offers another, even less convincing father and daughter pairing, Doug (Donny Osmond) and Katie (Margo Harshman). If Melanie and James behave like a loving married couple heading for amicable divorce, Doug and Margo behave like giddy honeymooners, complacent in blue and pink, warbling their way through the American songbook as they pop up in location after location. In them, the audience glimpses the surreality of white suburbia’s argyle-sweater and golf-club niceness.
Despite the broad oppositions, a whiff of incrementalism hangs around this movie, with its images of integration that don’t yet amount to equality. Such harmony might reassure the tween demographic and focus its attention on the aspirational triumph of Melanie’s story. But it will not prepare any of Raven-Symoné’s fans, black or white, for the realities they encounter outside the cinema. Perhaps in a year or two, Raven-Symoné, who snags an executive producer credit on this movie, will look harder at high school and find more convincing stories.