Alice Upside Down

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Santa Barbara International Film Festival

Compagnie D'Avril/Alice Prods./Open Pictures

SANTA BARBARA -- Adapted from the series of "Alice" novels by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, "Alice Upside Down" is a Disney Channel-ready tween comedy-drama that's nicely anchored by an affable cast. It recently screened at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Alyson Stoner ("The Suite Life of Zack & Cody") capably holds down the fort as the title preteen heroine, Alice McKinley, whose mother died of leukemia six years earlier.

But time is proving to be a slow healer for her musician dad, Ben (Luke Perry), who has just moved Alice and her older brother, Lester (Lucas Grabeel), to a new town (played by St. Louis), where he has opened his own music store.

Meanwhile, Alice isn't off to the greatest of starts at her new school, where she already is locking horns with her teacher, mean old Mrs. Plotkin (a swell Penny Marshall), and demonstrating that she hasn't inherited her parents' singing voices when she auditions for the annual musical.

Director Sandy Tung, whose previous family film credits include the past two "Shiloh" movies -- also based on Naylor novels -- does an efficient job distilling the material with assistance from co-screenwriter Meghan Heritage, but it's the bright performances that really keeps "Alice Upside Down" on its feet.

Even when she's required to speak directly into the camera (a by-now all-too-common technique that proves more distracting than cute) or put herself in some clunky fantasy sequences, Stoner displays a self-effacing underdog quality that makes her easy to root for while the adults are called upon to provide some real character substance rather than merely popping in and out as standard-issue authority figures.

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