by Ed Symkus

For a film with such a clich & eacute;-filled preview trailer -- ugly duckling high school girl turns into a beauty when she dons a pair of ice skates and tight little skating outfit -- Ice Princess turns out to be a pleasant surprise.

Yeah, it is about a high school senior who isn't very popular around school. And yes, she does do some blossoming when she hits the ice, and there's even a boy involved. But that's about as close as it gets to a formula coming-of-age movie.

The folks at Disney have made their fair share of dull, uninspired films that keep repeating new versions of the same stories, but this isn't one

of them.

Casey (Michelle Trachtenberg) might have only one pal at school, but she's in her own happy little world when she's out behind her home, absent-mindedly gliding along the ice that covers a small pond. Her single mom (Joan Cusack) seems happy just to be watching Casey being happy out there - as long as it's only a hobby. Mom, you see, is a teacher, and she knows that the only important thing in this world is education.

But there's really nothing to worry about. Casey is a great student. So what if the popular kids refer to her as a science geek and leave her off invite lists to the cool parties? Besides, one of her teachers says that her calling is physics, and that if she can come up with a "really personal" science project, she could get the attention of the scholarship folks and maybe have a chance at making it into Harvard.

Hmmm, she thinks. Maybe she can figure out an aerodynamic formula for competitive figure skating.

OK, so the script starts off with an extreme idea that could easily narrow the interest of its audience -- boys are right out, and the only girls who will be into it are either ice skaters or other science geeks.

Fortunately, that's not the case. This is no boilerplate, by-the-numbers film. And it's much more about the ups and downs of being a normal kid than the trailer suggests.

Casey packs a computer and video camera, starts figuring out all kinds of science-related things concerning the sport of skating, and soon gets involved with the local skating coach, Tina (Kim Cattrall). Tina keeps trying to push her own skating daughter, Gen (Hayden Panettiere, remarkably good after her bland performance in Racing Stripes), but also has her own dark past in ice skating.

That's the slightly dramatic part of the film's content. At its center is Casey's transformation. No, not the "ugly duckling" thing, but the fact that her earlier passing interest in skating turns into something else. Most of it is kept light, such as her joining a beginners' skating class, in order to help her understand that science project better, and finding that she's at least two heads taller than the other participants. And then there's that boy, the cute and hunky Teddy (Trevor Blumas), who operates the Zamboni machine and just might have his eyes set on Casey. Their scenes together are well acted and very -- but not too -- cute.

A good deal of friction enters the story, some of it of the competitive type, between Casey and Gen; some of it between Casey and the coach; most of it between Casey and her mom, when it's discovered that she's been secretly spending more time on the ice than in the books.

This all leads to good and bad news for those of us watching the film. Trachtenberg gives a well-balanced performance, playing the part with refreshing exuberance. She's obviously not doing all the difficult jumps and moves, but crack editing makes the illusion that it's her pretty near perfect. But while Cattrall mostly underplays her part (a welcome change after her obnoxious role on Sex and the City), Cusack overdoes her role to the point where she becomes grating, with exaggerated physical moves ranging from the looks on her face to her wildly waving hands.

When the film finally turns to the actual competitions, it becomes a study of young skaters trying to psych each other out, and of pushy, overbearing parents making impossible demands on their kids. This is also where the most excitement comes across, due to well-placed, very active camera work and good use of close-ups.

One of the biggest surprises -- and one of the things that elevates the film above others like it - is the inclusion of some really dastardly behavior from an unexpected source, which eventually leads to a great deal of angst among some of the main characters.

And plaudits to the filmmakers for keeping things down to earth with an ending that takes a sort of Rocky route without stretching the boundaries of believability.

Publication date: 03/17/05

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