The first movie I ever loved was “Cinderella,” the original Disney animated film from 1950. The second movie I ever loved was “A Cinderella Story:” the classic 2004 teen rom-com adaptation.
As a hopeless romantic cinephile and an underdog loyalist, I kept the Cinderella plotline close to my heart throughout my youth, seeing myself in any struggle as a Cinderella before the ball. Sometimes, this rosy outlook served me surprisingly well.
During my first University of Michigan homecoming weekend, my sister’s friends, a dozen independent and empowered recent University alumna, told me that shedding my rose-colored glasses was a rite of passage. I saw them physically cringe in the presence of their former college hookups, and they told me college would traumatize me. There would be no Cinderella stories.
This week, I watched “A Cinderella Story” for the first time since starting college. I still haven’t found love, but now more than ever, I love and relate to the film.
Hilary Duff (“Lizzie McGuire”) plays modern Cinderella, Sam, a server at her evil stepmother’s diner; Chad Michael Murray (“One Tree Hill”) plays Austin, modern Prince Charming, the class president and football captain. The two classmates fall in love in an anonymous series of poetic flip phone messages. The formerly Instant Message-exclusive duo decide to meet at the Halloween school dance, dressed, fittingly, as Prince Charming and a princess. When they meet, Sam wears a stunning wedding dress (provided by her boss Rhonda, played by Time’s Most Influential: Regina King), crystal heels and a lace mask covering her cheekbones to her forehead (which somehow conceals her identity from Austin). Crushed by the discovery that her secret admirer is the most unattainable boy in school, she continues to hide her identity.
Now three months into my college career, I truly relate to Sam’s aches and pains of an unattainable crush. I’m no longer put off by the divide of high school cliques, but rather the divide of a 60,000-person student body or a 200-person lecture hall.
In his 20-question effort to guess his Cinderella’s identity, Austin asks, “Do you believe in love at first sight?” As a child, I swooned at this line. As a high schooler, I rolled my eyes. As a college student, I get it. I can relate to Austin: sharing glances and some banter with a “stranger” for a single moment and believing it’s love, just for them to run away to the next class or party or path on the Diag. As Sam flees the scene at midnight, leaving behind her flip phone (the modern glass slipper), I find myself reflecting on the thousands of painful moments when a potential love-at-first-sight moment was cut short.
My favorite moment in any Cinderella story — from the original 1950 Disney film, to the classic sports underdog film, to the 2000s romantic-comedy adaptation — is the moment right before the ball when the Cinderella changes outfits and becomes a new person. As a kid, I always dreamt of this exact moment: miraculously gaining confidence and finding love in a single moment. In high school, I thought this moment might be the first day of college; it was not. However, rewatching my favorite movies now, I understand that Cinderella and all her counterparts in the 2004 film did not find love or confidence overnight either.
The characters in “A Cinderella Story” find the same solace in anonymity I once found as a reserved kid, the same solace we let ourselves find all too often in a college of over 60,000 students. Cinderella, Sam and even Austin continue to hide their true selves after the ball, yet over time gain the confidence to reject their pasts and open themselves to love. In classic 2000s rom-com fashion, the main takeaway of “A Cinderella Story” is that it’s best to be yourself.
When Sam’s identity as Cinderella is revealed in a humiliating pep rally skit, she gains the courage to change her life. She quits the diner, confronts her evil stepmother (played by pop culture icon Jennifer Coolidge, “Legally Blonde”) and storms the football team locker room to tell off Austin for not being true to himself or acting upon his love.
“Waiting for you is like waiting for rain in this drought: useless and disappointing,” Sam says in one of the most iconic monologues of the 21st century, strutting out in her Y2K low-waisted jeans.
Austin, too, has a Cinderella story. Like any good high school movie heartthrob, he rejects his father’s aspirations for him to play college football (attending Princeton instead) and rushes out of the game for a rain-soaked kiss in the bleachers with Sam.
I haven’t found the “everlasting love” Natalie Cole sings about in the movie’s final credits, but in all of its cringe-worthy and relatable moments, “A Cinderella Story” reminds me that love and self-love are out there for me in the end. I just have to stop hiding and stop waiting for the perfect royal ball/kiss-in-the-rain moment and make something happen. My life is not a Cinderella story, but I can still watch my favorite movies, and for just a moment, keep my rose-colored glasses on and pretend that it can be.
Daily Arts Writer Kaya Ginsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.