For all her over-saturation in the media, it’s still hard to not like Hilary Duff. There is a simple sweetness to her that taps into some part of our subconscious. Of all the teen stars that rose to fame in the past few years, she is the one who nailed her persona and although she is working to change that (no blame there) she is smart enough to do it gradually. Ms Duff does posses a certain amount of talent, that can’t be denied. But even more than that she has this quality about her, an ‘It-ness’, that might best be described as a girl next door essence. Her true talent might be not just her awareness of who she is, but her ability to be comfortable with it and project that.
All of this comes about because of the recent DVD release of the 2002 TV movie Cadet Kelly. When originally broadcast on the Disney Channel, many passed this off as Private Benjamin lite. While there are echoes of similarity between the two (popular, fun blonde ‘joins’ the army, hi-jinks ensue, everyone learns something from the other side) Cadet Kelly really does venture off into some new territory and in the end it stands on its own as a competent, engaging film.
Cadet Kelly tells the story of Kelly, a fun-loving girl (Duff), who is forced into army life when her mother marries a military school commander. The family moves to the school, Kelly enrols and the fish-out-of-water premise begins. Except in this telling, the premise doesn’t feel as old or as stale as you might expect. This is due mainly because of Duff’s engaging personality and willingness to completely inhabit her character. While at the school she is hard pressed to change her lifestyle until she is forced to (thanks to a court-martial). Her punishment involves working with the drill team. (Or rather I should say as taking the job of equipment manager, although that doesn’t sound any better.) From the minute she steps on the field with the team, you know exactly where this is all headed – to Kelly infusing her personality and style on the team while creating camaraderie with her new friends, accepting her new life and creating a bond with her stepdad. We know this is where everything is headed and yet we don’t turn away. That’s because the director, Larry Shaw, hits all the right buttons with delicate precision. This film is like comfort food. There’s nothing new here, this movie won’t make you want to change the world, but not every movie should.
Ms Duff does a capable job as Cadet Kelly Collins, the accidental ROTC soldier who learns and imparts some life lessons while spending time in training. While her true talent is in unselfconsciously being herself, her acting abilities have improved. And although sometimes in the film you can really see her trying, she gets points for at least that. The movie also stars Disney Channel stalwart Christy Carlson Romano as Kelly’s supervising officer. Carlson Romano brings a certain un-distinguishableness to the role that suits it fine and allows Duff even more room to shine. Providing some much-appreciated veteran guidance is Gary Cole, who plays the General trying to keep control of his camp. It would have been great to see him be allowed to take this character to the extremes (one thinks of his work in Office Space) but the reality is that this just isn’t his show.
The movie is what it is. It doesn’t try too hard, doesn’t push past its boundaries. It knows its limitations and happily works within them. In the end Cadet Kelly provides two hours of entertainment. You’ll watch it, enjoy it, feel good and then forget it. And that’s OK because some movies should do just that; provide you with a brief escape without becoming an intrusion into your world.
The extras on the DVD include commentary by actors Christy Carlson Romano and Aimee Garcia on selected scenes as well as the obligatory behind-the-scenes featurette. Nothing new or insightful is really gained from either. There is though a DVD-ROM feature, a Boot Camp Party Planner that offers a fun extension of the film experience for fans, which is exactly what extras on a DVD should be.