Duff plays Terri Fletcher, a self-effacing but talented member of the high school choir with dreams of becoming a professional singer -- something her strict, almost bullying father Simon (David Keith) is determined to prevent. Terri is very close to her older brother, Paul (Jason Ritter), who chafes under their father's constant negativity and encourages his sister to stand up for herself. "You're so good all the time, you're like a Stepford daughter," he chides her gently.
Without telling Terri, Paul makes a short video of her singing and sends it to the Bristol-Hillman Conservatory. Soon thereafter, Paul is killed and Terri injured in a terrible car accident caused by a drunk driver. Terri is devastated. She also feels responsible, since she encouraged her brother to sneak out of the house that evening, something she had never done before.
Accepted at Bristol-Hillman, she refuses to consider going until her mother Frances (Rita Wilson) and bohemian Aunt Nina (Rebecca De Mornay) tell her that it's what Paul would have wanted. The women lie outright to Simon ("I've never lied to my dad before," frets Terri), and off she goes to L.A. for the three-week program. There she has to overcome not only the other, far more sophisticated students (one of whom describes Terri as "retro Brady Bunch"), but also her lack of musical training and, perhaps most important, her own guilt and loss of artistic passion following Paul's death.
Judging a film that is aimed specifically at adolescents -- in this case, girls -- aged 10 to maybe 14 is a bit of a crapshoot. Who knows what that demographic likes these days? Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, about another, equally wholesome girl (albeit in the 1950s), tanked at the box office, as did the recent Olsen twins movie, New York Minute. But A Cinderella Story, Duff's other picture this year, made a solid $51 million, and nearly all of Lindsay Lohan's films have done well.
With her innocent air and high-wattage smile, Duff is adorable to look at and has a lot of appeal. She rose to fame as Lizzie McGuire on the Disney Channel TV series and in the subsequent feature film -- portraying an utter knockout who is sweetly klutzy and insecure, and who somehow is not the most popular girl at school. Somewhat surprisingly, the character of Terri is no more sophisticated than the girl in The Lizzie McGuire Movie (the story line and humor in Raise Your Voice are actually less subversive than in the earlier film), although she does get to go through a tragedy and experience deeper emotions.
She does a credible acting job, given that she has to remain a sweet, virginal, definitely not hip teenager, somebody who will still provide a good role model for pubescent and prepubescent girls -- at least in the minds of those controlling Duff's career. As always, she plays the nice girl who, although she may feel sad and hurt, never lashes out at anybody. Wilson is believably loving and anguished as Terri's mother, whereas Keith turns in a one-note performance as her overbearing dad. John Corbett provides someone for older girls to fantasize about -- perhaps the mothers who accompany their daughters to the movie.
Duff, whose first album sold nearly five million copies, possesses a slightly breathy singing voice that's lacking in forcefulness, but the subject of adolescent musical tastes in 2004 is outside this critic's realm of knowledge. The film's other music -- i.e., the background score -- is as generic as they come. Whether it's going for sad, tragic, or upbeat, it's all very run-of-the-mill. That, however, is probably not something that this film's target audience will even notice.