First Daughter

“First Daughter” is a good movie for people who wanted to see “Chasing Liberty” but can’t stand Hillary Duff or Mandy Moore, whichever one was in that movie. (They are interchangeable to me.) The movies are really the same film, with the same plot and the same twists, but “First Daughter” is maybe a little better.

They were both originally scheduled to be released the same week in January, two days apart. But “First Daughter” lost that game of chicken and moved to September, a move that will forever brand it unfairly as the copycat, the imitator. I’m not saying “First Daughter” deserves great things, but it does deserve a better fate than being dismissed as a Mandy Moore/Hillary Duff rip-off, for heaven’s sake.

Anyway, it’s about Samantha Mackenzie (Katie Holmes), daughter of the U.S. president (Michael Keaton), who in this alternate-reality version of 2004 is running for re-election without being weighed down by things like Iraq or being kinda dumb. The biggest bone his opponents can pick with him is his lack of education spending, which means it must be a pretty dull election.

As the film opens, Sam is about to head to California’s Redmond University for her freshman year. She will travel on Air Force One, of course, and be accompanied by a phalanx of Secret Service agents and curious news reporters. She would rather pack her stuff into a VW bug and make the drive cross-country herself, but such an ordinary life is not possible for her. Her father, good soul that he is, wrestles constantly with his love for his daughter and his desire to keep her safe, along with the harsh fact that there are people who would like to kill the daughter of a president.

Still, Sam constantly seeks freedom and normalcy. Her college roommate, Mia (Amerie Rogers), a PG version of a trashy party girl, does what she can to help, but mostly she just gets jealous because she’s accustomed to being the center of attention wherever she goes and now she’s always being upstaged by American royalty. Sam meets a cute boy named James (Marc Blucas), but for some reason he is hesitant to embark on a relationship with her, even though he clearly likes her. He keeps saying, “We need to talk,” but then instead of speaking up, he lets himself get interrupted by even the mildest distractions, the way people do in movies but never in real life.

Sam and James sneak away from her two Secret Service agents on a regular basis, and Sam’s hijinks are often photographed by paparazzi, thus potentially harming her father’s campaign. Can’t an 18-year-old girl just cut loose and live a little?

Not if she’s the president’s daughter she can’t. That’s one of the movie’s surprisingly mature and grown-up ideas, the truism that you sometimes have to accept life’s limitations and sacrifice some of the things you want. The movie certainly is not a downer — it has an effortless charm that is often very engaging — but it’s not a blissfully ignorant fairy-tale, either, the way a certain other movie about a president’s daughter was. Sam’s actions actually have consequences, which Duff’s or Moore’s didn’t. (Or maybe it was Amanda Bynes.)

Katie Holmes is adorable and savvy, like a good first daughter, and her interaction with her Secret Service agents (played by Michael Milhoan and Dwayne Adway) is cute and relatively believable. In fact, much of the film, directed by Forest Whitaker and written by girl-power scribes Jessica Bendinger (“Bring It On”) and Kate Kondell (“Legally Blonde 2”), falls under the category of “unlikely, but not impossible.” It’s not a brilliant film, and much of it is predictable — yet it has a few laughs, and its target audience will enjoy it. What about adults? Well, they won’t find it altogether unpleasant.

C+ (1 hr., 44 min.; PG, a little mild profanity, some vulgarity, some underage drinking.)