Sydney White Chizfilm Movie Reviews
February 29, 2008

“Sydney White”: Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho, It’s Back to College I Go

by Jonathan Chisdes

In the spring of 1987, when I was a freshman at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, a movie company came onto campus for a few days to film some exterior shots for a feature film to be called “Before God.” Naturally I was very excited and managed to steal some time away from my studies so I could be an extra in one scene. For several hours, over two dozen takes, I walked back and forth between Olin Library and “Beans” (that’s what we called the dining hall in those days) as the two lead actors slowly jogged across campus exchanging a half-dozen lines of dialogue again and again and again. Some called that tedious or boring, but I must confess I was extremely fascinated and tried to absorb as much as possible about filmmaking.

I waited and waited and waited for the movie to come out. Years went by. Literally, sixteen years. I had almost forgotten that I was even in the movie until one day, while doing a random search on the internet, I discovered that the film had changed its title to “After School” and had gone straight-to-video. With some effort, now well into the DVD age, I managed to get a hold of a video tape of the movie and excitedly watched it. While it was very exhilarating to see a number of shots of my old alma mater in the movie, I was rather disappointed. In the one scene that I was in, I was way in the background. Although I remembered exactly where I was and could see myself, I was so small that no one else could possibly recognize me, even if they had been prompted in advance to look for me. Furthermore, the film as a whole—the script and the acting—sucked. No wonder it went straight-to-video.

Now why am I telling you all about this? Because not long ago, another film company—a more professional one—visited the campus of Rollins College to film a large portion of a feature film called “Sydney White.” Again I got excited, even though I wasn’t there and haven’t even been a student at Rollins for eighteen years. The film was just released on DVD, I watched it last night, and I must say that I really enjoyed seeing numerous glimpses of my old school on the big screen; it brought back quite a few memories.

Two of the dorms I had lived in were in the background in three scenes and there were a number of scenes in front of Mills Memorial, the building where I spent many happy hours working for the Writing Center and the Sandspur, the college newspaper which I edited. (The building is no longer called Mills—they’ve since changed the name, but I can’t recall its new name. I guess it will always be Mills to me.)

Quite a few scenes were shot in front of and inside the Olin Library where I often studied. Other scenes were filmed in Bush Auditorium where I attended some very interesting lectures, the Annie Russell Theatre where I saw so many great plays and even acted in one, and by the shore of Lake Virginia where I strolled countless times underneath the Spanish moss contemplating my various problems as well as the great issues I was exposed to though my classes. There were several glimpses of the beautiful and iconic tower of the Knowles Memorial Chapel. And look at the movie photo above: if you ignore the two actors, that was the exact view of Mills Lawn that I had from my dorm my senior year. They clearly put the camera right in front of my former window.

In the movie, they didn’t call the school Rollins College, but made up a fictional name, Southern Atlantic University. Still, it was a pleasure for me to see so much of that campus I had loved and lived on for four mostly-happy years of my life. So watching this movie was pretty exciting for me, on a personal level.

Now, as for the content of the movie itself, I have to admit I wasn’t expecting too much. I was warned that it was mainly a teen comedy, a mediocre studio pic, and certainly not my kind of film. And while, yea, the plot was predictable and the characters a bit over-the-top and stereotypical, I have to admit it had a bit of a charm, silly though it might have been.

The movie took the famous fairy-tale of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” and re-imagined it as set on a contemporary college campus with tensions between Greeks (fraternities and sororities) and independents. Snow White becomes Sydney White (Amanda Bynes), a freshman girl whose dead mother had belonged to a sorority and now Sydney feels she must pledge that same sorority to honor her mother. The wicked witch is Rachel Witchburn (Sara Paxton), the president of the sorority who becomes jealous of Sydney. The mirror-mirror-on-the-wall is a computer website which shows which students are the most popular. Prince Charming is Tyler Prince (Matt Long), the president of a fraternity who falls for Sydney. The Seven Dwarves become the “seven dorks” who live in a run-down shack at the end of “Greek Row.” One of the dorks (Jack Carpenter) sneezes a lot because he has bad allergies. Another one (Donté Bonner) keeps falling asleep. A third one (Arnie Pantoja) is a bit dopy. The happy one is played by Samm Levine whom I met briefly at the Florida Film Festival last year. The poison apple is an Apple Macintosh computer which hacks onto Sydney’s computer and erases her hard-drive. There are a number of other cute references to “Snow White.” Though not exactly a parallel tale, it borrows enough elements from the original story to be a tribute rather than a rip-off.

Also, the movie deals with some rather serious issues about Greek life on college campuses which were actually rather important to me two decades ago. Apparently these issues are still very much alive today. The movie casts them in rather simple terms, but I appreciate that they were brought up and it reminded me of some of the concerns I personally had back then, as I watched what a powerful force the fraternities and sororities were at Rollins in the 1980s. I haven’t thought about those issues for a long time.

No, the movie is far from being sophisticated. But in all fairness, it seems aimed at a younger audience than I usually write for. And its messages about the herd mentality of cliques and being true to yourself are important for teenagers to hear when they are at that time of their lives when they are desperate to fit in, even at the expense of denying their individuality.

Okay, sure, that’s not at all an original idea in film, but it is the first Hollywood film to unite this theme with the beautiful campus of Rollins College. So don’t watch the movie for the plot because you’ll be able to figure out exactly what will happen after only five minutes into the movie. And don’t watch it for the character development because most characters are one dimensional. But watch it for the clever “Snow White” references and watch it for the great setting of a very attractive college campus which may bring back many pleasant memories.

Assuming, of course, you attended Rollins.

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