"Artists feel things differently than regular people," music teacher John Corbett tells star pupil Hilary Duff during one of her many crying jags in the dreadful Raise Your Voice. What makes this statement objectionable isn't the idea that artists have a greater depth of feeling than the average lump, which isn't worth dignifying with a response. It's that the word "artist" has been so devalued that it can be applied to whatever Duff thinks she's doing in this movie. As a general rule, those who call themselves "artists" usually aren't, and that certainly applies to a spunky, no-talent kewpie doll like Duff, whose singing voice sounds like it's been filtered through a warehouse full of state-of-the-art processors. Whenever she goes a cappella, she peels the wallpaper.
Residing at the wholesome end of the virgin/whore female-pop-star continuum, Duff plays a small-town goody-two-shoes who gets accepted at a prestigious Los Angeles music school. But her angry, toothpick-chomping father, who once had big-city dreams of his own, forbids her from going, decrying L.A. as a modern Gomorrah that will corrupt his innocent daughter. After her beloved brother dies in a car accident—no doubt God's way of punishing Duff for sneaking out to see the Christian rock band Three Days Grace—she decides to defy her father and attend the school anyway, under the ruse that she's staying with her aunt. After adjusting to the culture shock of homeless people, blaring police sirens, and corporate-sponsored sports arenas, Duff settles into her challenging new environs, where she and quirky young musician Oliver James collaborate on a song that could win them a $10,000 scholarship.
Due to all the hemming and hawing over the death of Duff's brother, it takes a full 40 tear-jerking minutes for Raise Your Voice to get to the music academy; once there, the students indulge in obligatory Fame-style improvisational fusion—jazzy, rocking, but with a hip-hop flavor—on their lunch breaks. With teeth that gleam as if she's been fed intravenously all these years, Duff comes across as so freshly scrubbed that ordinary teens would hardly recognize her as one of their own. (When poor James leans in for a chaste kiss, she recoils like he's asking for the moon.) When it finally comes time for her to prove her mettle against other students at a recital, only the awed reaction shots make her talent evident. As a stage and screen presence, Duff doesn't have star quality so much as Starr quality, as in Ryan Starr, the second-tier American Idol contestant who got by on looks and precocious Hollywood savvy, but didn't have the chops to win. It's only a matter of time until Duff, too, is a housemate on The Surreal Life, or whatever future reality TV show revives celebrities rightfully left behind.