Tensions are High
I like the long dresses I got to wear.
—Katie Holmes, commentary, First Daughter
“This was a shot on Friday night… at… 2am?” Such are the fond memories mentioned by the members of the First Daughter DVD commentary team. Katie Holmes, Marc Blucas, and Amerie (“One name,” notes Blucas, “like Madonna”) share their insights and jokes, adorably. Which is appropriate, given that the film features Ms. Holmes at her most adorable in Forest Whitaker’s by-the-booked romantic comedy. Whether dressed in gown and tiara or slacks and pert jacket, she recalls no one so much as Audrey Hepburn circa Roman Holiday, all long limbs, elegant angles, and graceful neck. It’s a treat just to look at her.
But then she has this unwieldy plot around her. The president’s daughter, Samantha MacKenzie, has grown up in the public eye, not by her own choice, as she reminds her mother Melanie (Margaret Colin), but because of those choices made by her parents. Sweet, uncomplaining, and relentlessly well-behaved, Sam endures groundbreakings, student assemblies, and Rose Garden photo ops, supporting her father (Michael Keaton), smiling alongside her mother, their outfits and poses coordinated.
Whitaker begins the film with his own voiceover, narrating Sam’s life as a fairytale: she’s “a little girl just like any other little girl,” entertaining her Secret Service detail—bald Agent Bock (Michael Milhoan) and silent Agent Dylan (Dwayne Adway)—with frogs and tea parties, happily ensconced with her loving if distracted parents in a Big White House. The film begins as Sam is leaving for (a fictional) college, 3,000 miles away in California, eager to begin a life of her own, even if she does have to be attended by agents every minute—and oh yes, even if her father is running for reelection, which means that no matter no matter how far away she might be, Sam must be on her best behavior.
At school, she encounters the requisite black roommate, Mia (Amerie), who encourages her to be adventurous, to go to parties and seek out hot boys. Sam has never done much of this, so she’s both appalled and intrigued by Mia’s vivacity, going so far as to attend a water-sliding fete, where’s she photographed by paparazzi looking rather wild. Dad has his sensible assistant Liz (Lela Rochon Fuqua) sort it out, because he has so much on his mind that he can’t handle his own daily life details. “Tensions are high,” Liz advises Sam, concerning the election year, but alluding to the girl’s demands as well.
Just what other stuff the president might be trying to contain is neatly left out of First Daughter, which never quite gets to articulating his “stance on education” or his “position on the environment.” The film has Sam allude to dad’s “domestic agenda,” only to be shut up: “Blah blah blah, end of sound bite,” admonishes Mia when Sam uses this phrase. Sam also suffers some anti-MacKenzie activism, one in the form of a campus rally where the featured denouncer is played by Parry Shen (“This was like, at seven in the morning, remember?” says Amerie). The second, completely weirdly, comes when a car crashes into a red-carpet event, leading to Sam’s immediate evacuation from the scene—what the crash might have meant is never mentioned: was it a suicide bomber or what?
The film’s other omission of recent history has to do with MacKenzie’s predecessor in the Oval Office. While First Daughter raises the specter of “history” only to renounce it. Dad refers to Chelsea’s sojourn at Stanford, suggesting that, while her Secret Service guys could “blend in,” with long hair and Birkenstocks, such subtlety is now impossible, as he and Sam live in “a different time.” The insinuation is that Sam’s at greater risk than Chelsea was then, that these “times” are somehow exponentially more dangerous, but no one refers to 9/11 or the Bush administration, apparently erased in this alternate non-reality. While irrelevant to the movie’s primary business—getting Sam hooked up—this little bit of political context by way of erasure is of a piece with the film’s “fairytale” apparatus, the sense that it takes place out of time and dislocated from any recognizable experience.
At some level, this is the film’s premise, that Sam’s existence is simultaneously ideal and outrageous, typical and desirable. She begins to think about all of this when she meets and falls for her RA, James (Marc Blucas). Their romance proceeds by one conventional moment after another, complete with corny montage sequences: those crazy kids elude photographers and agents, go for pizza (“It tastes like freedom,” she enthuses, as if she can’t eat anything she wants, whenever she wants; meantime, Holmes and Blucas recall getting sick while they were doing this scene, from nine am to two in the afternoon), go to a fairgrounds and shoot at targets, share a chaste kiss in the hallway as the camera circles them, stay up all night talking (for the DVD, Blucas fondly remembers the “all nighter” as the route to teen romance).
When the complication arises (James puts off telling her about “this other thing” interminably, in order to prolong the film, but it’s not long before you, who know Blucas best as Riley Finn, earnest soldier boy in Buffy, will guess that he’s “undercover” Secret Service). The romance is especially redundant. For all her talk about independence and sage advice from Mia (“Every little girl’s gotta grow up and let go of her father”), Sam is daddy’s girl, and he’s so proud of her. So what if he lies outright to her (for her protection, of course), and eventually orchestrates her love story. While the film is always predictable, some scenes are exorbitantly clichéd. Most notably, the couple wrangle an afternoon escape to a lake, where they are suddenly afloat in a canoe, he with fishing pole and she with pink parasol. Adorable.