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 father, Simon (David Keith), is determined to prevent. Terri is 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. Without telling Terri, Paul makes a short video of her singing and sends it to the Bristol-Hillman Conservatory. Soon thereafter, he is killed and Terri injured by a drunken driver.
Accepted at Bristol-Hillman, she refuses to even 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. In L.A., Terri has to overcome not only the other, far more sophisticated students but also her lack of musical training and her own guilt and loss of artistic passion following Paul's death.
With her innocent air and high-wattage smile, Duff 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. Surprisingly, the character of Terri is no more sophisticated than the girl in The Lizzie McGuire Movie, although she does get to go through a tragedy and experience deeper emotions.
She does a credible job of acting, 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.
Duff, whose first album sold nearly 5 million copies, has 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.