I’m sorry, I just get past the twinky little outfits.
— Joan (Joan Cusack), Ice Princess
Just hearing all the torture you have to go through with your feet, that’s intense.
— Trevor Blumas, commentary, Ice Princess
“It was really difficult,” says Michelle Trachtenberg, watching herself ice skate during the opening credits for Ice Princess, “because the pond was actually melting and we were actually skating in slush.” That’s because she was performing during a Toronto summer, dressed up to look like winter. As aspiring skater girl Casey, Trachtenberg is caught between naïve and brilliant, sweet and conniving, not a girl but not quite a woman.
As Trachtenberg recalls for the DVD commentary track — which she shares with costars Hayden Panettiere, Trevor Blumas, and Kirsten Olson — her work on the project changed her body, building muscle to the point that her costumes had to be refitted during filming. That is, she “actually” did skate for the film, and learned to jump and spin for the fictional practices and competitions. (The DVD also includes a self-advertised “cool” alternate opening, deleted scenes, and a couple of music videos, benignly dull extras.) Olsen, for her part, is an “actual” skater, which means that she’s mostly adding on during the commentary (“I wasn’t in that scene,” “This was my first day”). The focus is Casey’s story, of course, which means the kids talk a lot about how that works out.
Casey starts off as a seemingly serene sometime skater and high school physics wiz. Her senior year science project is 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). Though Tina is skeptical of this intruder, even trying to run her off, believing she’s a spy for some other wannabe superstar.
But Casey 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” (Olson); slightly less competitive Tiffany (Jocelyn Lai); and Gen (Panettiere), who has her own predictable issues, given that she’s Tina’s under-pressure 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, who is, the commentators repeat frequently, “awesome,” so dedicated to her kids that she flew home to Chicago to see them every weekend), is a puttery English teacher with feminist proclivities who envisions her daughter’s future as a scholarship to Harvard and an academic career. When Joan hears that Casey’s been hanging around the rink, where she might be influenced by those girls in “twinky 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 twinky 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 (Blumas). (On his first scene, the girls on the commentary track giggle, “Enter the hottie of the movie,” after which Trachtenberg notes, “I’m really pale. Can someone get some bronzer on that girl?”). Teddy 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 (and when they kiss, Trachtenberg remembers, she ate “garlic mashed potatoes or something… I thought it was funny”) All this physical ingenuity is abetted, of course, by the computer program Casey makes 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.
Gen also brings Casey along to a party, where she can mingle with Teddy (and here Canadian Blumas recalls in the commentary that he had a voice coach to help him with American pronunciations — Mom, not Mum; about, not aboot). He in turn encourages Casey to follow her dream, which involves several musical montages that emphasize her hard work and, no small plot point, her subterfuge regarding her mother. Joan’s resistance leads to confrontations, over what girls are supposed to be and what success might mean: though Joan wants her to give up skating, Casey persists, because she feels “beautiful” while she’s gliding on the ice.
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. As mom, Cusack is unusually but understandably restrained, as Joan capitulates to Casey’s dreams of basic teen romance and twinky outfits. But the movie could have used some of her signature strangeness, her willingness to find the unexpected in her roles. Yes, pursue your dreams, but ease up just a little, on the whole “princess” business.