What to Drink While Watching “Wish Upon A Star”

Disney goes all existentialist

 

SHEEN SAYS: Many years ago, a friend recommended I watch this film. This friend was not a 14-year old American schoolgirl but rather a 52-year old French professor. Since then, it has acquired an almost cultish fame and I was delighted to be able to sit down and check it out a couple of weeks ago.

If you must know, I watched it on a Qatar Airways flight back to Spain after being deported from the land of Xxxx. Airlines usually just offer you very recent films, or seasoned classics, but for some reason Wish Upon a Star was available for my viewing pleasure and it didn’t take me long to choose it. (OK, it took me 20 minutes how to work out how to actually get the wretched thing to work; thanks go to the very patient Swedish gentleman in the aisle seat who carefully guided me through the menus and all that malarkey.)

Well, it’s not easy to explain what makes this film special. I would guess that out of 100 viewers, 99 would describe it as the typical High School movie, with a character-switch between two very different sisters. There’s a juvenile love interest and a happy ending. It is the perfect family-friendly Disney film. And yet…

This film is so crammed with clichés as to make the viewer almost not pay attention to the ramifications of the story line. We know what is going to happen every five minutes. There is no tension or mystery at all. The clichés, however, veil a very satisfying subtlety; one which leaves you nodding in appreciation in the end.

Katherine Heigl and Danielle Harris are the two sisters, Alexia and Hayley. This film was made in 1996, years before Heigl hit the big time and she manages to look convincing as the appearance-obsessed snooty dumb blonde. Harris is, of course, the opposite – geeky and grungy but nice and friendly. Hayley envies Alexia’s charm, looks and boyfriend and Alexia is drawn to her sister’s braininess and good-natured manners. So, unknown to each other, they both simultaneously wish upon a shooting star and “become” each other. The viewer sees this only from the point of view of Hayley; only later do we learn that Alexia has made this wish, too.

OK, now, in a classic teen comedy, this would lead to crazy misunderstandings, each girl would learn to appreciate the qualities of the other, and they would return to normality as more balanced human beings.

And Wish Upon a Star doesn’t disappoint those who expect this. However, there are some interesting developments in the plot. What each sister is looking for is some part of her sister’s lifestyle, not the whole package, and as each girl resides in the other’s body, what they both realize is that what they can’t stand is for the other girl to have become her. The result is that they attempt to sabotage each other’s character by defacing their own image. Thus, geeky grungy Hayley deliberately destroys her sister’s ”cool” image by dressing badly and chewing gum, and Alexia-as-Hayley dances on the table dressed as a dominatrix.

The viewer sees, before the characters do, that Alexia is trying to be herself by damaging her own portrait and that Hayley, pretending to be Alexia, has to assume Alexia’s person to attack herself-as-her-sister.

There is a disturbing moment of anomie as each sister realizes that she cannot be herself, nor  her sister, but this is almost immediately smothered by the comedy elements which keep the entertainment going.

Like all American High School films, there’s an important basketball match (and the star player is Alexia’s boyfriend), a science fair with gorgeously predictable projects like the solar system and crummy volcanoes, a prom queen (guess who wins that), a well-meaning Mom and Dad (who are both psychologists, it should be noted), a sadistic school principal, a boy next door with limited social graces… All the ingredients are there to make this a classic adolescent feel-good movie, but in fact it is a cunning pastiche. This is just the plastic backdrop to the real drama of identity – false, assumed, and true.

Director Blair Treu and scriptwriter Jessica Barondes cleverly pour on the gags just as the viewer is about to wonder what is going on in the girls’ minds, how they must feel, how they see themselves and each other, hating each other for being each other’s other.

The nature of “self” itself is questioned. Who am I? – the one that looks like me, the one that behaves like me, or the one that thinks like me? If I eliminate the looks and the behavior, am I left with the real me? Am I only what I think I am? In other words, if we wish to “be” someone else, what are we really wishing? Do we want the looks, the behavior or the thoughts?

Needless to say, it all turns out nicely in the end, as each sister regains her true identity, now enhanced with the bits they had envied in their sister. This is the inescapable, quintessential Disney ending and admits no objection – the perfect shiny packaging for a really intriguing film which I heartily recommend.

This category is called The Movie and the Beverage and I’m supposed to say what drink would go well with this film. Well, let me see. I drank a small bottle of Chilean Chardonnay, a Diet Coke and a cup of tepid, watery coffee.

I was going to finish here but I want to say something about the word “Chilean”. I know that British English speakers pronounce this word with the stress on the first syllable, as though the word rhymed with “Gillian”, and the first time I heard a North American use the word, I didn’t recognize it. He was talking about Chilean wine, and he pronounced it “chill-LAY-an”. I thought he was talking about chilled wine or something.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter. El vino chileno siempre es una buena opción, whatever your identity, nationality, etc.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Sigmund on September 13, 2010 at 9:23 am

    The concept of “self-as-identity” in this film is trivialized by the fact that what each sister wants isn’t actually to “be” the other sister, but to be herself within the socio-affective framework of her sister. The hermeneutics fall apart admirably when each sister realizes the inextricable nature of the content and the container. We are what we are within the metastructure of the “whole self”.

    I would like to congratulate you on your insight, and I can’t help wondering how you, as a twin, see your own identity as such. Are there any parallels between you and your twin brother, and the sisters in the film? If you were to wish to be your brother, would you like to think as he does, or would you rather think as yourself-as-your-brother?

    Reply

  2. Posted by zaragozatwins on September 21, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    SHEEN SAYS: Cool observations, Dr Sigmund. Let me say that I have occasionally wondered what it must be like to get inside my twin brother’s head, just poke around and open a few files, rather than “be” him. Heen and I share a lot of psychological make up, obviously, but each of us is essentially the other part of each other. I saw no parallels between us twins and the girls in the film. Suffice it to say that Heen would never watch this film, no way on God’s sweet green earth, I assure you. Love, Sheen xxx

    Reply

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