Dear and adorable Dawnie (also known as Michelle Trachtenberg) has apparently regained her sanity. In Ice Princess, she pulls back from the awkwardly over-sexed, unfunny excesses of Eurotrip to her sweet, slightly ornery girlhood. This is a good thing, but the charms that kept her afloat in Sunnydale are now up against a force more sinister than Glory or the Big Bad. In Ice Princess, she battles Disneyfication.
She plays Casey, a sweet and seemingly serene high school physics wiz who, in the course of finding a science project about which she might feel “passionate,” devises a physics-based computer program to determine perfect triple lutzes and double axels. The project takes months, during which she not only stays up all hours tick-ticking on her laptop, but also spends hours on end at a local rink, digital-videotaping the practice sessions of aspiring U.S. national champions, all coached by the daunting, demanding former star Tina (Kim Cattrall, not so outright mean as in Crossroads, but working the same menacing mom angle). Though Tina is skeptical of this intruder (even trying to run her off, believing she’s a spy for some other wannabe superstar).
But Dawnie works her magic, and soon wins over the tough-as-nails Tina, who is bitter, it will emerge quite unsurprisingly, over a lost opportunity during her past. Casey also earns the appreciation of the girls on the team — fiercely competitive Nikki, also known as the “Jumping Shrimp” (Kirsten Olson); slightly less competitive Tiffany (Jocelyn Lai); and Gen (Hayden Panettiere, now too mature to be riding zebras, making Racing Stripes seem eons ago), who has her own predictable issues, given that she’s Tina’s miserably pressured daughter. Specifically, Gen wants to be able to eat hamburgers and French kiss her boyfriend, and Tina chases off the boyfriend and insists she eat carrots. In fact, all the girls’ parents are overbearing and difficult, and Ice Princess makes no secret of its judgment of their efforts to live vicariously through their children’s successes, pressing them to compete and insisting that it’s only because the kids “want” to win.
Casey has parent problems as well, in that her mom, Joan (Joan Cusack), is a puttery English teacher with feminist proclivities who envisions her daughter’s future as a scholarship to Harvard and a brilliant academic career. When Joan hears that Casey’s been hanging around the rink, where she might be influenced by those girls in “twinkly little outfits,” she’s loudly unhappy (“There’s no shelf life for your mind”). So you can imagine her disapproval when it turns out that Casey is bizarrely gifted on the ice, and so undertakes to pay for lessons by working at the rink’s food stand, and actually puts on one of those twinkly outfits (one of Tina’s old ones) in order to compete. This means that Casey has to begin lying to her mom as to how she’s spending her after-school hours and ineptly cover up her complete exhaustion. Joan does finally notice that Casey’s carrying figure skates in her bag, but that only means that a second showdown will be coming, because Casey lies some more.
The child who appears healthiest of all is the lone boy and Zamboni driver at the rink, Teddy (Trevor Blumas). He also happens to be Tina’s son, but because he’s never been inclined to skate, but only support the girls who surround him in their obsessive efforts, Teddy appears both aware of the costs and distant enough so he can nod approvingly when Casey or Gen achieves a special spin — abetted, of course, by the computer program Casey has made to pinpoint exactly where they need to put their toes and how much velocity they need to make each leap. Gen helps Casey do her makeup. Casey supports Gen in her (minor but admirable) rebellion.
As Casey explains it to her heartbroken (but valiantly supportive) mom, she feels “beautiful” while she’s gliding on the ice. (Harvard scholarship be damned!) By the time the team makes it to the eastern semi-finals, where Michelle Kwan and Brian Boitano provide absolutely awful commentary, you’ll be re-appreciating the nasty genius of South Park‘s musical spoofing.
Corny as it must be, Ice Princess is substantially bolstered by Trachtenberg’s appealing mix of eagerness and grace. At the same time, the film she’s in is disappointingly regular, given the talent and skewed possibilities involved. Think about it: Joan Cusack plays her mom! You have to think that no one involved fully appreciates the weirdness Cusack can bring to her projects, from Men Don’t Leave (1990) to The School of Rock (2003). Cusack unhinges all conventions and even spices up even the most demented roles, and here she is capitulating to her little girl’s dreams of basic teen romance and twinkly outfits. The film appears to support a general “message” — pursue your dreams even if they run up against expectations or recast the very idea of what counts for intelligence. Just so, it might have cut loose, just a little, on the whole “princess” business.