Eleven year old Alice (Alyson Stoner) still grieves for her mother, who died six years ago, when life throws her another curve-ball. Her well-meaning father, Ben (Luke Perry), uproots Alice and her big brother, Lester (Lucas Grabeel), in search of a fresh start. After selling the house where the kids grew up, the family move to Ben's old home town where he opens a music store. Already awkward and insecure, Alice must adjust to a new school and struggles to make friends. She takes an instant shine to perky schoolteacher Miss Cole (Ashley Eckstein) but to her chagrin ends up in a class taught by the rumpled and seemingly curmudgeonly Mrs. Plotkin (Penny Marshall). Amidst a string of calamities and mishaps Alice endeavours to prove she has inherited her late mother's talent by seizing the lead in the school play ahead of fresh-faced rival Pamela (Brigit Mendler). The problem is: Alice can't sing.
Released directly to DVD and cable television Alice, Upside Down is based on a series of children's books written by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor that have proven controversial for some, dealing as they do with the complexities of adolescence in a disarmingly frank and intelligent manner. While the film does not include anything too challenging for the average eleven year old, director and co-writer Sandy Tung deserves kudos for addressing the anxieties of the troubled adolescent heroine with skill and sincerity. Having said the conceit of the child heroine talking to camera or imagining a trendy alter-ego is handled better elsewhere, in Ramona and Beezus (2010) for example or even Dear Dumb Diary (2013), while the film also overplays Alice's clumsiness. Scarcely a moment goes by without Alice stumbling, tripping or knocking someone or something over, frequently accompanied by a wah-wah-waah music cue that just feels forced.
Where the film does succeed is in dealing sensitively with themes like bereavement and social anxiety, offering genuine insight into the psychology of this wounded young girl. In a nicely understated fashion, at odds with the slapstick humour, it becomes apparent Alice is obsessed with befriending Miss Cole because she reminds her of her late mother, even going so far as to try and set her up with Ben. Yet as the plot unfolds we grow to understand that while she may not have the teacher she wants, she has the teacher she needs. Veteran actress and director Penny Marshall, one-time star of Seventies sit-com Laverne and Shirley, gives a charming and gentle performance as the outwardly crotchety yet kindly Mrs. Plotkin and when her personal arc takes an unexpected turn only the most hard-hearted will remain unmoved.
Although episodic and frankly slow, Alice, Upside Down mines some insight and even the odd laugh from situations recognisable to adolescents the world over: social embarrassment, forgotten homework, thwarted dreams, humiliation at the school play, culminating in Alice's toe-curling audition that stands as the film's most successful stab at comedy. Actress, singer and dance machine (seriously, look up her YouTube videos) Alyson Stoner makes for a personable heroine exhibiting an early instance of the charisma and vulnerability apparent in her later roles in Camp Rock (2008) and Step Up 3D (2010). Another future Disney teen idol, Brigit Mendler, has an early role here and is similarly winning as the school prima-donna whom the script wisely avoids characterizing as the clichéd mean girl. Mendler went on to pop stardom and headlined the cult Disney teen film Lemonade Mouth (2011). Speaking of teen idols, fans of teen soap Beverly Hills 90210 (in its original incarnation) might get a kick out of seeing ageing poster boy Luke Perry more or less playing a middle-aged update of his original screen persona.