"Freaky Friday"

The mother-daughter switcheroo gets a fresh update, in a rare Disney movie that doesn't scream "wholesome family entertainment."

Published August 8, 2003 3:33PM (EDT)

In movies these days, parents who try to relate to their teenage kids usually seem totally squaresville. The children -- and they're almost always treated as children in the strict sense of the word, unformed beings who have no sense of the world -- usually have blue hair and lots of piercings and play very loud, abrasive music. The parents tend to be earnest, hardworking people who take great pains to keep the spirit of Woodstock alive even as they toil to make their mortgage and SUV payments. All they want to do is to chill out every once in a while with a joint and a little Crosby Stills & Nash.

It's no wonder the two parties can't stand each other.

But somehow, "Freaky Friday," an unapologetically straightforward, mainstream picture with no pretense to hipness, almost completely sidesteps the idiocy of that setup. "Freaky Friday" is based on the popular kids' novel by Mary Rodgers (it was adapted for the screen once before, in 1976, with Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris), in which a mother and daughter are forced to switch bodies -- and lives -- for a day. Director Mark Waters has managed to give us that rarest of creatures: A relaxed Disney movie, one that doesn't bludgeon us into a stupor with that deceptively lethal sap known as "wholesome family entertainment." So many parents lament, understandably, that there aren't many movies they can take their kids to. They see the Disney label as a kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, a name families have been trusting since before the computer wore tennis shoes. Disney has been milking that reputation for years, squirting the profits from their over-bleached entertainments directly into their giant, shiny milk buckets.

While I sympathize with parents who simply want to take their kids to the movies with a minimum of worry, I question the idea that glossified, "safe" family pictures are any way to foster a love of movies in kids. (If I had a daughter, of any age, I'd never subject her to "The Princess Diaries," a movie that almost drove me to blue hair dye and Satan worship.) But Waters -- his résumé includes the offbeat 1997 "House of Yes," starring Parker Posey -- has made a Disney movie that doesn't feel like a Disney movie. It's infused with a filmmaker's sensibility, not a studio's -- it doesn't feel as if it were made by committee. Even though this is a light, cheerful picture about family relationships, it never feels overplayed -- its tone is bright without being garish. And it moves breezily. Written by Heather Hach (formerly the editor of an in-line skating magazine) and Leslie Dixon, "Freaky Friday" feels modern and in-tune, instead of just desperately with-it.

Jamie Lee Curtis is Dr. Tess Coleman, a crisp, successful psychologist (and widow) who's engaged to be married to a nice but fairly boring guy named Ryan (Mark Harmon). Her 15-year-old daughter, Anna (Lindsay Lohan), doesn't much care for Ryan, but then, being 15, she doesn't much care for anything, other than her rock band and the cute guy at school, Jake (Chad Michael Murray, who looks something like Beck reinvented as a supermodel), who has just begun to notice her. Anna has no patience with Tess, and vice-versa: Anna screams at Tess for no real, defensible reason ("You're ruining my life!" is her favorite refrain), and Tess responds with her psychologist-mom baloney ("Privacy is a privilege, not a right," she says coolly, after having removed the door to Anna's bedroom). Neither of them seems like a particularly bad person, and yet in some ways they're both unbearable. You want to clock their heads together, Three Stooges-style, and tell them to get over themselves.

And figuratively speaking, that's exactly what someone eventually does. As the result of an ancient Chinese spell delivered via fortune cookie, Tess and Anna wake up one morning and realize they're inhabiting each other's bodies.

"Freaky Friday" is an actor's movie, a picture in which the spirit of the performers sets the tone for the whole enterprise. Curtis and Lohan each establish their characters at the beginning of the movie and spend the rest of it mimicking each other, gleefully but naturally. These are happy, relaxed performances: The camera picks up how much fun the actresses are having and sweeps us in. Lohan, even with her dewy, sun-kissed complexion and teenage tummy pout, makes us believe she's a 40-ish mom who has a lot invested in playing by the rules. But when we see Tess' confidence and straightforwardness -- two qualities that, earlier, made her seem annoyingly superior -- filtered through Anna, we see how desirable those qualities are. And we also see Tess, with Anna's spirit inside her, loosen up physically and emotionally. When she bops out of a store after a shopping spree, sporting a shorter, more flattering haircut and a velvet-patchwork dress that suits her fabulous figure, she still looks like herself -- only 20 years younger and 20 times freer. "Freaky Friday" is a great riff on the tension between mothers and daughters, but it never denies that there are good reasons for that tension to exist in the first place. When Tess and Anna finally reach accord, it's not because they've pinpointed the ways in which they're similar, but because they've come to terms with their differences. Instead of trying to live together in a rigid lockstep, they syncopate their seemingly conflicting rhythms, and the new beat works.

The actresses get lots of great lines, and they know what to do with them: At one point Lohan-as-Tess looks down at the little stud in her bellybutton and says with dismay and disapproval, "You pierced your navel!" And Curtis' performance in particular is a physical marvel. She carries herself like a teenager, with a kind of slouchy, relaxed dignity. She even wields a Telecaster in way that makes you believe she actually knows how to play it.

"Freaky Friday" gets so many of the small things right. For one thing, Anna's band looks and sounds like a genuine teenage rock band, instead of a grown-up's idea of what a teenage rock band should be like. The songs aren't locked in grunge hell; they've sprung from a world in which the White Stripes, the Strokes and the Hives have already happened. And in the movie's discreet, PG-way, both Anna and Tess are allowed to be sexy, which itself seems revolutionary. In movies about parent-child relationships, teenagers are so often portrayed as sexual beings in only the tamest, vaguest ways, probably because most parents find the idea of their kids as adults, with adult sexual feelings, so hard to get used to. By the same token, parents in those movies are usually shoehorned in the Mike and Carol Brady mold -- the suggestion is that sex between parental-type people is yucky, or at least unseemly, and nobody really wants to think about it.

Part of the dynamic of "Freaky Friday" is that Tess and Anna don't understand each other's taste in men -- what's always clear, though, is that they both dig guys a lot, and there's nothing wrong with that. "Freaky Friday" is unusual in that it's a family movie with a healthy attitude toward sex, even though it's not overtly about sex. It's a picture that's mainstream in the best sense, capturing something of the way people muddle through modern life, trying hard to be the best version of themselves. And it's a reminder that once in a while, you can actually find multiplexity at the multiplex.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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