HBO // 2009 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // January 14th, 2009
Be courageous. Be a friend. Be yourself.
Chrissa (Sammi Hanratty, Pushing Daisies) is a young girl who is having to face a lot of changes. Her family has just moved to a new state in order to support her recently-widowed grandmother (Michael Learned, Scrubs). Chrissa's mother (Annabeth Gish, The X-Files) is kind woman who has a new job as a doctor at the local hospital, and her father (Timothy Bottoms, The Paper Chase) runs a pottery studio. Chrissa also has a big brother named Tyler (Austin Thomas, Ghost Whisperer) who tries to keep an eye out for her.
Chrissa is particularly nervous about going to a new school. She doesn't have any friends there, and is worried that no one will like her. "Don't worry," her grandmother says. "Just go up to the first person you see and say hello." Chrissa tries that very thing, and the results are disappointingly unsuccessful. That's because she tried to greet Tara (Adair Tishler, Heroes), the biggest jerk in the whole school. Tara is the leader of a group of mean-spirited bullies, and they quickly grow to love tormenting Chrissa at every turn. Meanwhile, Chrissa struggles with her self-esteem while also attempting to befriend another lonely young girl who doesn't seem to have many friends. Will Chrissa decide to protect herself and tell her parents and teachers about the bullies? Will Chrissa stand strong? Find out in An American Girl: Chrissa Stands Strong!
Every once in a while I get a viewing assignment that is a pleasant surprise. The was certainly the case with Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, a lovely family movie made with tenderness and strong craftsmanship. The merits of that film gave me optimism about seeing the latest flick in the series, Chrissa Stands Strong. I quickly made a couple of discoveries that disheartened me. To begin with, this is the first of the American Girl films to be set in a modern-day time period, meaning no more attractive period design. It's a minor thing, but it still disappointed me. Second, I was disappointed to discover that the film itself is lacking the skillful beauty of Kit Kittredge. Chrissa Stands Strong is nothing more than a 90-minute after-school special, with all the pros and cons that such a thing implies.
The emotional manipulation is laid on thick at all times. Tara is portrayed as an absolutely monstrous villain who will undoubtedly be despised by every man, woman, and child in the audience. Her villainy knows no bounds, and at one point she very nearly gets a character killed. No, really. Chrissa has several "daydream sequences" in which she imagines destroying her opponent in some awful way. The film's first 75 minutes essentially offer increasingly horrific behavior from Tara until Chrissa finally breaks and tattles. Actually, her grandmother tells us otherwise: "Tattling is like getting even with someone. Telling a teacher about being picked on by another student is just standing up for yourself."
I must admit, Chrissa Stands Strong is kind of brazen in some ways. It has the audacity to be both sharply manipulative and gently politically correct. After going through all the trouble to turn Tara into an unforgivable villain, it does a 180 and redeems her during the final moments. After all, there's no such thing as a bad child, right? We're all wonderful people on the inside. The film also relies on the sort of quiet stereotypes that aren't often acknowledged. Our young protagonist has brown hair, and of course the antagonist has blonde hair. The film retains the usual paranoia of letting any minority character be anything other than completely noble and kind. Even the one Indian girl who seems to be a jerk early on is actually just a super-sweet person who has been pressured into behaving badly by the evil Tara. Such carefully-planned items add a very Disney Channel vibe to the whole thing.
This isn't a film about real characters. Chrissa always seems like a wholly artificial creation, specifically designed to be sympathetic and relatable to young girls who are suffering under similar circumstances. Indeed, Chrissa's burdens are so expansive and far-reaching that surely every girl will be able to find something to latch on to. That's good for the kids, but bad for older viewers hoping for a credible film. Each new plot development is agonizingly predictable, and the adults in the cast offer nothing more than a pleasant screen presence. Even Jennifer Tilly is turned into a bland support figure.
The transfer is perfectly reasonable, with somewhat deep blacks and accurate flesh tones. The image is sharp enough, though hardly a knockout. Audio is okay, though occasionally the score by Jennie Muskett threatens to overwhelm the dialogue. I also disapproved of the off-putting song that plays a couple times during the film and over the end credits. What an awful composition. There are no extras of any sort included on the disc.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated