First Daughter (2004)

[23 September 2004]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Tastes Like Freedom

Katie Holmes could not be more adorable in Forest Whitaker’s by-the-booked romance. Whether dressed in gown and tiara or slacks and pert jacket, she’s plainly framed to recall Audrey Hepburn circa Roman Holiday, all long limbs and elegant angles. It’s a treat just to look at her.

But then she has this cumbersome plot around her, essentially a replay of Chasing Liberty, awkward and predictable, this time called First Daughter. Holmes plays Samantha MacKenzie, who’s grown up in the public eye, not by her own choice, as she reminds her mother Melanie (Margaret Colin—whom Holmes resembles almost uncannily in some shots), but because of those 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 cheerily coordinated.

Whitaker begins his 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 best behavior.

At school, she encounters the requisite black roommate, Mia (pop-soul singer Amerie), who encourages her to be adventurous, to go to arties 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. Upset, dad has his sensible assistant Liz (Lela Rochon Fuqua) sort it out, because the prez has so much on his mind that he can’t handle his own daily life details.

Just what other stuff this might be is neatly left out of First Daughter, which never quite gets to articulating his “stance on education” or his “position on the environment.” (Though it does include a couple of scenes that suggest anti-MacKenzie activism, one in the form of a campus rally where the featured denouncer is played by Parry Shen, and the second, completely weirdly, 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 wig-out on 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 obviously 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, outrageous, and typical, fantastic, abhorrent, and desirable. She begins to think about all of this—which seems obvious to the rest of us—when she meets and falls for her RA, James (Marc Blucas, typecast here as the second coming of Riley Finn, the earnest soldier boy he played in Buffy). The 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 any darn thing she wants, whenever she wants), go to a fairgrounds and shoot at targets, and share a chaste kiss in the hallway as the camera circles them. When the relationship complication arises (James puts off telling her, about “this other thing” interminably, in order to prolong the film), you can’t be surprised, especially if you’ve seen the Mandy Moore version (which was, in fact, originally titled First Daughter).

The romance is especially redundant and disappointing (though hardly surprising) in its suggestion that Sam, for all her own big talk about independence and sage advice from Mia (“Every little girl’s gotta grow up and let go of her father”), Sam’s really her daddy’s girl, and he’s so proud of her, even as he connives and lies to her (for her protection, of course), and eventually orchestrates her love story after all. That he’s a liar probably explains how she’s able to accept James’ lies too: all in the family.

While most of the film is clunkily predictable (a pool party ends with dour Secret Service guys throwing some hapless kid with a water-gun to the ground and hustling Sam away in a big black SUV), some scenes are exorbitantly, laughably clichéd. Most notably, the couple wangle an afternoon escape to a lake, where they are suddenly afloat in a canoe, he with fishing pole and she with pink parasol. The shot is so highly stylized and frankly strange that you might think Whitaker was handed a set of conventions and overkilled them deliberately. You want hazy, lazy, lackluster romantic clichés? Take that!

Just what such this excessive display might accomplish isn’t clear, aside from eliciting guffaws from viewers at a preview screening. Perhaps the best possible outcome is that, in the next rendition of this movie—and there will be one—these banalities will be as disappeared as MacKenzie’s policies. Poof.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/first-daughter/