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Ice Princess (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 18 March 2005
“Ice Princess” is at once the movie you’re expecting, and something quite different. It’s another Cinderella story, but the characters are all a little askew from what you usually find in this sort of thing; they’re more realistic, more rounded and funnier. It has a perfect star-making role for Michelle Trachtenberg, and features lots of beautiful, exciting figure skating. It’s not exactly a girl-empowerment tale, though there is some of that; it’s too honest to stoop to that kind of stereotyping. Under another director, the script by Hadley Davis could have turned out just that way, but fortunately the director here is Tim Fywell, the Brit who did the interesting “I Capture the Castle” a couple of years back.

The story is relatively elementary. Teenaged Casey Carlyle (Trachtenberg) loves skating on the pond behind her New England home, but with the strong support of her mother Joan (Joan Cusack), she’s going after a physics scholarship to Harvard. She’s something of a science geek, dateless and shy. She’s not quite the laughingstock of the high school soshes, but she’s teetering on that brink.

To prepare a paper for the Harvard admissions investigators, she decides to study the physics of figure skating. Right there in her home town is a rink managed by Tina Harwood (Kim Cattrall), who was herself a figure skating legend some years before. She’s tough but shrewd; at first suspicious of Casey’s intentions—the girl has shown up at the rink with a video camera—she relents and allows Casey to do her research. Tina’s daughter Gen (Hayden Panettiere) is a skater; her mom is as intent on Gen becoming a skating star as Joan is on Casey’s going to Harvard. (Both families are fatherless; the fathers are not even mentioned.)

Hoping to analyze the skaters’ movements more closely, Casey decides to join the beginners’ training team—she’s a head and a half taller than the other kids, all but one of whom are girls—and soon discovers that not only does she love skating, but she has a real talent for it. This hardly escapes Tina’s notice; she still wants Gen to be the champ, but she’s willing to allow Casey now to train with the older skaters.

There is some of the usual teenage-angst kind of stuff; Casey geeks out at a party, but she’s also attracted to hunky Teddy (Trevor Blumas), Tina’s son. He’s no skater, but does all the odd jobs around the rink, including driving the Zamboni machine. The ice-smoothing gadget figures in a couple of amusing scenes.
But the focus of the film is on Casey as she develops confidence in her own abilities and a powerful love of figure skating. She is still keeping this a secret from her mother, who’s contemptuous of figure skating. In a telling scene late in the movie, a distraught Casey asks her mother why she dislikes Tina. Her mother sighs and admits that people like her will always hate the prom queens.

Trachtenberg gained notice as Dawn, the unexpected sister of Buffy on TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” but she’s been acting since childhood—she was the lead in “Harriet the Spy,” for example. Here she’s turning into a young woman as we watch, but is still girlish enough to emit shrill squeaks of surprise from time to time. Trachtenberg has an odd quality; she’s one of the few female leads who is both cute and pretty at the same time; usually, it’s a tradeoff. Doris Day was cute and pretty, but usually alternately.

She’s definitely to be congratulated for her skating ability; granted, stunt doubles do the most difficult axels and the like, but when hired for the film, Trachtenberg could hardly skate at all. But she does most of her own skating in the movie, very credibly. And she’s just so much fun as an actress, smart, funny and winsome, all at once. She could have a major career ahead of her. We’ll be the better for it if she does.

Joan Cusack ALMOST has the straight, ordinary-person role that she’s been steering an eccentric course toward, but not really. Her character is a devout feminist, herself a teacher (we learn this very late in the movie), but who had to settle for less than she had wanted. She’s determined that her daughter not make the same mistake.

To its credit, the movie establishes clearly that studying physics IS a reasonable thing for a teenage girl to do; it’s not the obvious second choice to the glamour of figure skating. We would gladly accept Casey making either choice at the end of the movie—but it isn’t called “Physics Princess,” so we know which way it’s headed.

Kim Cattrall’s performance might not get noticed in the flash of skates and the swish of the ice, but it’s interesting nonetheless. The role could have been played as tough, mean and cold, but Cattrall is wise enough to allow us to see that other choices are always available to Tina, that she’s working against her better nature to be so domineering of her daughter—who really doesn’t have her heart set on skating—and so manipulative of Casey. Her reform near the end of the movie, then, is that much more convincing.

Some real surprises are found in the supporting performances. One of Casey’s teammates, Nikki (Kirsten Olson), is a red-headed, hot-tempered shrimp, wisecracking but intensely focused on her skating. Olson is simply terrific as the smart-mouthed brat, one of the most appealing characters in the film. So it’s quite a surprise to learn this is her first acting job, but not a surprise to find that she’s a championship skater herself.

Another champ in the cast is Juliana Cannarozzo, as a dynamic, sort of punkish rival skater. Her skating is dazzling, intensely exciting, unlike almost any other figure skating I’ve seen. But like Olson, she’s also excellent off the ice, playing a character more complicated and interesting than she seems at first.

The highlights of the movie, of course, are the skating sequences. It’s one of the most popular spectator sports in the country now, and unless I miss my guess, “Ice Princess” is likely to do very well at the boxoffice. It’s a warm, ingratiating movie with good performances and a slightly different story for a sports movie, more like “The Jazz Singer” than “Rocky.” And, of course, it’s a sports movie mostly for girls, who, by george, sure the heck deserve one. Good for them that it’s a movie as likeable as “Ice Princess.”

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