tek's rating:

A Cinderella Story (PG)
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Caution: spoilers.

This came out in 2004, but I didn't see it until 2019. I'm pretty sure I read or heard something good about it somewhere, but now I can't remember where. I don't think it could have been very many months before I finally watched it, though. Whatever it was, it made me want to see the movie, and now I'm glad I did. It apparently got mostly bad reviews when it came out, but I really can't understand why. I thought it was pretty decent.

So, it's a modern adaptation of the Cinderella story, which has all the essential elements, plus some other plot points and characters. In this case, "Cinderella" is a girl named Sam Montgomery, who lives in the San Fernando Valley. At the start of the movie, we see a few scenes of Sam and her father, Hal, and via Sam's narration, we learn that the two of them were best friends. Hal seems like a great dad, doing all he can to make Sam feel like a princess (but without spoiling her). They play baseball together, and he reads her fairy tales. I particularly liked that he told her that following her dreams means more than just looking for her "prince." Sam also spends a lot of time at her father's diner, "Hal's," and she's friends with everyone who works there. That mainly includes a waitress named Rhonda (Regina King), and to a lesser extent the fry cook, Bobby (Paul Rodriguez), and another waitress named Eleanor (Mary Pat Gleason, best known to me from The Middleman). There are a number of other people on the wait staff, but we don't get to know any of them at all (and honestly, I didn't know why a fairly small diner would need that many employees). Sam was perfectly happy with her life, but then her father marries a woman named Fiona (Jennifer Coolidge), who had a pair of daughters of her own, Brianna and Gabriella. According to Sam's narration, it seems as if the reason Hal got married was that he thought Sam needed a mother, though there is no plausible explanation as to why he thought Fiona would make either a good mother or a good wife. Anyway, not long after the marriage takes place, there's an earthquake that ends up killing Hal. And Because He Didn't Leave A Will™, Fiona inherits everything, including the diner, which she renames "Fiona's."

Flash forward eight years, and Sam (Hilary Duff) is now in her final year of high school. (It's unclear whether she's considered a junior or a senior, because at one point she mentions that she'll be graduating a year early due to all her studies, but it's not really important.) Um... I should mention that as soon as her father died, Fiona made her move into the attic, but Sam seems to have made it into a decent enough bedroom. Fiona also makes her work in the diner, in addition to doing all the household chores and basically treating her like a servant rather than a stepdaughter. She can be mean to Sam in any number of ways, but on the whole, Sam's life doesn't seem nearly as bad as in most Cinderella adaptations. (It should also be noted that Fiona isn't just mean to Sam, but to pretty much everyone else, especially her employees at the diner, who have only stuck around because they care about Sam. Besides that, Fiona is shown to be incredibly selfish, most explicitly demonstrated by her failure to conserve water during a drought- there's one shot where we see her lawn is the only green one, surrounded by brown lawns all around it.) Of course, Sam isn't only mistreated by her stepmother, but also her stepsisters. (Brianna is now played by Madeline Zima; I'm unfamiliar with the actress playing Gabriella.) But the two of them seem to spend more time bickering with each other than with Sam, probably because they barely take any notice of her at all. Aside from her home life, things aren't much better for her at school, because if the "cool kids" notice her at all, it's only to call her "Diner Girl" and treat her like some sort of peasant. Most notably, this includes queen bee Shelby Cummings and her clique.

But it's not all bad. Aside from her grown-up friends at the diner, Sam has at least one really good friend her own age, Carter Farrell (Dan Byrd, best known to me from Aliens in America). Also, she's been having an online romance with someone else who goes to her school, though neither of them know the other's real identity. I must mention that at one point before he died, Hal answered a question from young Sam about where princesses go to college, with the quip, "They go where the princes go... to Princeton." Because of that little joke, Sam's dream is to go to Princeton, herself, so the handle she uses online is PrincetonGirl. (I think there were some numbers added to that, but it's not important.) And she had met this guy in a Princeton chatroom, who goes by the handle Nomad (he also wants to go to Princeton). It definitely seems like the two of them are well-suited to each other, because they both have their own unique reasons for wanting to escape their present situations. We the viewers see that Nomad is actually Austin Ames (Chad Michael Murray), the high school's star quarterback, and Shelby's boyfriend. And despite leading what appears to be a charmed life, we learn that his father (played by Kevin Kilner, best known to me from Earth: Final Conflict) has a life plan for Austin that is nothing like what Austin wants for himself, but he's afraid to tell his father that. Anyway, Nomad suggests that he and PrincetonGirl meet in person at the upcoming Halloween dance at school. Fiona tries to prevent Sam from going to the dance, but Rhonda secretly helps her out, including making a costume for her, and covering for her at the diner. Carter goes with Sam, for moral support. (He's in a Zorro costume.)

Austin shows up dressed as Prince Charming (which upsets his two friends, since the three of them were supposed to have coordinated outfits as the Three Musketeers, so now they're just two musketeers). And for no apparent reason (to me, anyway), Sam's costume is considered by everyone to be Cinderella. (I do find it kind of weird that that fairy tale obviously exists within the world of this movie, but I don't recall Sam, either out loud or in narration, ever making any comment about how obviously her own life paralleled that story. But it's possible I missed something.) Anyway... after a brief instance of a guy named Terry (Simon Helberg), who is dressed as Neo from "The Matrix," pretending to be Nomad, Sam soon learns that Nomad is actually Austin. (Sam herself is wearing a mask that doesn't make it at all difficult to recognize her, so it's weird that Austin doesn't realize who she is. But despite having met her before, she was never really on his radar, so I guess it's not too unbelievable.) The two of them have a good time together, but Sam is afraid to reveal her identity, because she's worried that Austin wouldn't like her if he knew she was really "Diner Girl." (Which I also think is odd, because it seemed obvious to me in at least one previous scene that he didn't have the same disdain for her that Shelby or their friends do.) But anyway, by the time Sam works up the courage to tell him, her phone alarm goes off, reminding her that she has to be back at the diner by midnight, so that Fiona doesn't find out she'd left work to attend the dance. As she runs away, she loses not a shoe, but her cellphone, which of course Austin picks up. Oh... but I should also mention that Carter had a crush on Shelby, who Austin had dumped prior to the dance. And... an incident at the dance that I don't want to get into leads to Shelby making out with "Zorro," though if she'd known it was Carter, she never would have given him the time of day.

Well, you'd think the cellphone would play a major part in Austin learning Cinderella's true identity, but it doesn't. It seems to me it would have been a simple matter, since he mentioned that it was locked, so he could have just asked any girl who remotely resembled Cinderella to unlock it, and obviously Sam would be the only one who knew the password. But nothing like that happens. The only time the cellphone comes into play is when Brianna discovers the relationship Sam and Nomad had online, and that Nomad was Austin. She and Gabriella both try to convince Austin that they're Cinderella, and he asks them what item Cinderella had dropped at the dance. Neither of them knew it was a cellphone, but I'm pretty sure he knew even without that test that neither of them were Cinderella. (Although really, it wouldn't have been impossible for anyone at the dance to have seen him pick up the cellphone immediately after Cinderella ran out.) Anyway, when the wicked stepsisters fail at their attempt to trick Austin, they take the information about the online romance to Shelby, to get revenge. This leads to... something I don't want to spoil, but I also want to say I didn't exactly understand what it was meant to accomplish. It seemed to me like it was meant to embarrass both Sam and Austin, but also it seemed to me as if it was meant to make Austin think Sam had only been playing a trick on him this whole time, so that he wouldn't have any interest in Cinderella (or PrincetonGirl) anymore. But it also could be that it was meant to make Sam think Austin had been playing a trick on her. So, that whole thing left me confused. And it left Sam heartbroken. To make matters worse, Fiona had hidden an acceptance letter from Princeton, and instead showed Sam a fake rejection letter.

Man, I have revealed a lot of details, haven't I? But it's still more fun to watch than to read about, and I think I've left out enough other details of what happened up to this point. And beyond this point, plenty more happens that I won't reveal, except to say that of course there's a happy ending. And I thought the whole movie was reasonably fun and amusing, and I liked the characters, and the modern updates to the story, and everything. I loved Sam's relationship with her father (however briefly we got to see it), and how in the end her memories of him helped her move forward, after all the bad stuff that happened to her. I liked Sam's friendship with Carter, and with Rhonda. I liked that unlike most fairy tales, Sam and Austin actually got to know each other enough to have genuine feelings for each other before they officially "met." And... I liked seeing a lot of familiar faces. Aside from the ones I've already mentioned parenthetically, Jonathan Slavin (whom I mainly know from Better Off Ted) has a minor role, as does John Billingsley, and maybe some other people. Oh, and throughout the film, we occasionally see a girl, who the internet says is named Astrid, though I don't recall her name being mentioned in the movie. She did the announcements at school as well as deejaying the dance. I thought she was really cool, and I wish her role in the movie would have been larger. (I also think it's a shame I don't know the actress from anything else.)

rom-com index

Cinderella adaptations
movies: Cinderella (1950) * Ever After * A Cinderella Story * Ella Enchanted * Cinderella (2015) * Cinderella (2021)
TV: Faerie Tale Theatre (episode) * Cinderella (1997) * Once Upon a Time (episode)
ensembles: Into the Woods (1991) * The 10th Kingdom * Shrek the Third * Into the Woods (2014) * Once Upon a Time (season 7)