In the annals of teen movies, there have been some pretty atrocious ones, and since I’ve yet to see Crossroads or From Justin to Kelly, my vote’s going to First Daughter as the worst of the lot. Registering a generous 8% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie, directed by Forest Whitaker, is an affront to storytelling, filmmaking, and dialogue. It imagines the president’s daughter as a princess, which is ironic considering, well, history.
But who has time for existential questions of nationhood when there’s a fairy tale to be told? Katie Holmes plays Samantha MacKenzie, a powdered sugar ingénue and the only daughter of President John MacKenzie (Michael Keaton). As his reelection heats up, she leaves her White House cocoon to start a new life at Redmond University in California. There, daddy’s little girl has a hard time blending into her new environs. Everyone stares at her in class, she gets called out at a campus political rally, and the paparazzi are camped outside her dorm, making her the Taylor Swift of first daughters. The Secret Service are also on top of her like – I want to say guys generally are on top of girls in college, but that’s not going to happen for Samantha considering her obscenely large security detail.
In short, the princess, which is a more appropriate title for the movie, does not get the normal college experience she craves. It’s uncomfortable watching post-Dawson’s Creek Katie Holmes struggle to find her character, who at the core does not exist in any sort of reality. She’s a clueless, bubble wrapped prude but one who also gives off an air of erudition and some form of social sophistication. It’s unclear where the line is that she and the scriptwriters are trying to walk. Holmes ends up giving Samantha a sugary innocence that doesn’t match her coy look. The actress herself seems forever constrained by an impossible sense of propriety, wanting to play someone with real teenage sensibilities but unwilling to stray too far from the princess persona. Try not to cringe when she is confronted by reporters and forced to answer for her father’s domestic agenda; it’s worse than watching cable news.
That is ultimately the film’s biggest problem. Absent the whole fairy tale element, it’s just another teen movie. And while it wouldn’t be Aaron Sorkin or the most compelling story ever told, it wouldn’t be patently dishonest. If real life is anything to go by, first daughters navigate the world much like any other coed. Maybe they get drunk, maybe they build wells in Africa, or maybe they do both. And were this just another hyper-real perspective on what it’s like for a teen to grapple with one’s place in the world, I’d save the venom.
Pairing Samantha with better approximations of real people helps the situation but still doesn’t save the movie. Singer Amerie plays Mia, the sassy black roommate who can’t stand sharing the spotlight, and who awkwardly hits on Secret Service because why not, while Marc Blucas gets to be the dreamy RA who really cares about Samantha’s well-being and is good at keeping secrets. I wish there was more to say about these characters, but let’s just make like drunks at a house party and forget this whole thing ever happened.
Prod: John Davis, Mike Karz, Wyck Godfrey
Dir: Forest Whitaker
Writer: Jessica Bendinger, Kate Kondell
Cast: Katie Holmes, Marc Blucas, Amerie, Michael Keaton, Margaret Colin, Lela Rochon
Time: 106 min
Country: United States