It's election time, which for first daughters and their opponents means it's time to get trotted out by mom and dad and get taken down by the press. Obligingly, the incumbents giggled and told incoherent stories at their dad's convention, and one of their challengers got an embarrassing picture snapped of her at Cannes. As the Bush twins no doubt already know and the Kerry girls may soon find out, being the first daughter is like a fairy tale -- one in which little girls get locked in cages and poked with a long, green finger.
Not surprisingly, "First Daughter" is the second movie this year to spin the adventures of a fictional president's college-age daughter into a "Roman Holiday"-inspired flight of whimsy. Compared to "Chasing Liberty," the recently totaled Mandy Moore vehicle that was "First Daughter's" one-time namesake and virtual (albeit fraternal) plot twin, this is by far the superior product. It's a dubious honor, though. While "First Daughter" is nowhere near as airheaded or disingenuous as "Chasing Liberty," it's far more confused.
The story is of a contemporary POTUS (Michael Keaton) and DOPOTUS (Katie Holmes) who are forced to put their love, their boundaries, their patience and their commitment to the campaign to the test during those difficult teenage/election years. The movie lurches uncomfortably between two identities -- not unlike its subject, come to think of it. Director Forest Whitaker is too smart to take on this material entirely uncritically, so he burdens his princess with a pair of poll-obsessed, power-hungry cretins for parents and makes her carry the weight of the Western world on her elegant shoulders. But Whitaker wraps it up in the conventions of a particularly candy-coated fairy tale -- there's a frog-themed introductory sequence and a once-upon-a-time narration.
It may offer a lightly satirical look at the life of a child politician, but "First Daughter" is just as studiously apolitical as its predecessor. Every time it comes within a mile of spelling out its fictional president's party affiliation, it turns its head the other way and starts to whistle. This, no doubt, is the result of an atavistic major studio belief that political expression is a no-no even in a politically themed movie. The result, however, particularly halfway through the banner political year of 2004, is unintentionally surreal. If you can't say anything not-nice about the president now, you might as well not say anything at all.
Suffering the indignities of first-daughterdom with sad-eyed aplomb, Samantha Mackenzie endures a near total lack of privacy, a standing interdiction against self-expression, politically hostile peers, sycophantic adults and daily verbal assaults by the likes of Jay Leno and the Rivers' fashion coven.
Days away from going off to college in California, Samantha is starting to show signs of strain, which go unnoticed by all but her Lady Macbeth of a mother, Melanie (Margaret Colin).
On her first night at the fictional Redmond University, while her new roommate, Mia (Amerie), a grating narcissist in the teen-diva mold (will the thong-wearing go-girl sassiness ever end?) parties hardy, Samantha is feted by a phalanx of academic ghouls. Samantha is disappointed to find that genuine interactions continue to elude her. Frat boys gyrate for her to the strains of "Hail to the Chief," professors self-consciously try to wrest their students' attention away from her, reporters follow her around, two ever-present Secret Service lugs watch her watch Leno make jokes about her on TV. Samantha's first and only genuine interactions come courtesy of her resident advisor, the adorably Olsen-eyed James (Marc Blucas), with whom she quickly falls in love. As these things go, there are problems down the line (and if you saw the other movie, you know the story). But embedded in the formulaic, princess-leaves-the-castle love story are some coy allusions to real-life counterparts. As President Mackenzie, Keaton is not quite Clinton, not quite Bush. His wife, Melanie, is Hillary without the career, Laura without the geisha pose.
Samantha, meanwhile, is the movie version of Chelsea. Save for a brief episode in which she channels Jenna, gets falling-down drunk and dances on top of a bar, she's as smart, gracious and well-trained as a Park Avenue poodle. The dance lapse corresponds to an emotional breakdown, but her parents aren't interested. "There's been a 3-point drop in the polls since your little table dance," Melanie informs her before pulling her out of school to rejoin the campaign. Holmes is utterly convincing as a kid who keeps saying she just wants "to be a normal kid" but has no idea what that would entail.