Family films may have finally found their saving grace – and her name is Amanda Bynes. After years making Nickelodeon’s kid vid offerings (All That, The Amanda Show) eminently watchable, and delivering the WB one of its few sitcom hits (What I Like About You), she’s finally branched out into features. With her winsome, wholesome persona and slightly kooky undercurrent, she’s like a Bratz Lucille Ball, a seemingly serious actress who can easily slip on the requisite banana peels when needed. Though she’s currently geared toward the tween set, her potential easily surpasses her demographical reach. That’s why the winning Sydney White is such an important step for the star. It’s her first foray into quasi-adult fare, and it will gauge how much staying power she truly has.
By the looks of it, the answer is quite a bit. Based ever so slightly on the famed fairytale (the film’s title should provide the necessary hint) and featuring a cast of fresh faced newcomers, George Lucas in Love director Joe Nussbaum takes something that could be cloying and pat and expands it beyond its tacky TV movie boundaries. In fact, it’s hard to fathom how the Olson Twins passed on this project. Still, the simple storyline – tomboy Sydney heads off to college and pledges her late mother’s snooty sorority – lays the groundwork for moments of ‘meet-cute’ comedy and standard Greek life lunacy. It’s all very Revenge of the Nerds in its make-up and manipulation, but in a current cultural shift that actually embraces the dork dynamic, the last act standoff is more heartfelt than hilarious.
No, the majority of the comedy comes from Bynes' ability to be both comely and klutzy in a scene. When she meets BMOC fraternity president Tyler Prince, her ridiculous ramblings are cute and corny. Similarly, her interaction with the varied Vortex’s resident rejects reminds us of how fragile the combination of coming of age awkwardness and adolescent awakening can be. But our young actress maneuvers through such tenuous terrain with grace, wit, and a sense of wide-eyed wonder. One of the best traits Bynes brings to her roles is the sense of sudden experience. We never doubt the shock of her reactions, nor are her responses over-rehearsed or rote. Instead, we feel as if life is constantly surprising this sprite, and her good natured, normative takes come naturally, not out of some screenwriter’s notebook. It’s indeed a rare cinematic condition.
Wisely, Nussbaum surrounds Bynes with actors capable of conveying a similar stance. As the prime villain, Sara Paxton’s “witchy” Rachel is the perfect blond baddie. She’s all pampered and privileged poison, without a single saving sentiment. She is primed for a finale fall. As the rightly named Tyler Prince, Matt Long has a too good to be true quality that should have the adolescent gals in the audience wiggling in their wish fulfillment. While his ‘feeding the homeless’ hunkiness may be a bit much, this actor finds a way to make it work. Some of the best moments, however, come from the seven ‘dorks’, performers like Jack Carpenter (winning as the nebbish Lenny), Danny Strong (the perpetually pissed-off blogger, Gurkin) and Freaks and Geeks’ Samm Levine (as horndog dope Spanky) turning stereotypes into individuals with effortless engagement.
In fact, it’s fair to compare Sydney White favorably to the college comedies of the ‘80s, especially the smarter, sassier ones like Real Genius. While Nussbaum and his writer Chad Gomez Creasey realize the need to keep the mentality geared toward the marketplace, they also infuse the film with lots of grown up grins. When the Vortex dweebs head off onto the Student Body President Campaign trail, the classic sing-along “Hi Ho, Hi Ho” gives one of its words a satiric, contemporary nod. Similarly, Rachel’s set of “calming words” come across as a Super Sweet 16 registry list. Granted, a few of the jokes are obvious, and the narrative frequently follows traditional plot contrivances, but since both actors and filmmakers are trying everything to avoid cliché, the truisms don’t seem so tacky.
What we have here then is an obvious throwback to the Disney University cavalcades of the mid ‘60s, movies where Kurt Russell shined as genial undergrad Dexter Reilly. All that’s missing is the supernatural/sci-fi premise, the occasional slapstick setpiece, and Cesar Romero as a too suave underworld figure. Yet the same pleasure principles clearly apply. A movie like Sydney White is only out to entertain, to provide the emotional underpinning that will get us through the various purposeful plot machinations. It will establish sides, provide motivation, clarify the characters, and then deliver everything in a clean, convincing manner. We may not end up with something special, or overly endearing, but there will be no denying its effervescent entertainment qualities. You’ll leave happy, and hardly embarrassed.
As a result, Sydney White is one of those fascinating films that taunt your aesthetic while it simultaneously delights your fun zone. It doesn’t strive for deep meaning, or tempt fate by fully falling into the updated Brothers Grimm mode (the Snow White storyline is barely recognizable most of the time). Instead, it provides proof that Amanda Bynes will be the next big thing, a Meg Ryan in the making who will one day dominate the cinematic stratosphere. As long as she continues to mark time, putting in professional work both as star (She’s the Man) and sidekick (she was great in the Summer musical hit Hairspray) there is nothing but fame in her future. Unlike so many others in her former child star position, she appears resolute on building a career, not a criminal record. Perfect for the kids and inviting for adults, Sydney White is a surprisingly effective film that produces nothing but piles of smiles…and Amanda Bynes is the reason why.