With Amanda Bynes’ recent statement that she’d like to get back into acting, it’s time to take a look at the importance of the actress’ career.
The late 90s to early 2000s were the glory days for pre- to early-teen films. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s teen adventure movies saw them firmly cemented as America’s most famous twins, with the duo traveling to Sydney in Our Lips Are Sealed (2000) and the titular city of New York Minute (2004). Meanwhile, Lindsay Lohan successfully mimicked the twin success with 1998’s The Parent Trap, leading to a series of starring roles in culturally significant movies like Disney’s Get a Clue (2002), Freaky Friday (2003), and, of course, Mean Girls (2004).
Other honorable mentions from the period include actress Hillary Duff (especially her magnum opus The Lizzie McGuire Movie) and the less commercially appealing Ghost World, making just $8.7 million at the box office on a $7 million budget.
Amongst these Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen-s and Winning London-s lies a treasure trove of pre-teen films, and they all star the actress Amanda Bynes. With her first starring role on Nickelodeon’s The Amanda Bynes Show, running from 1999 to 2002, the actress built on her goofy host persona with a slate of films that, arguably, quietly shaped the late-90s to early 2000s teen movie sphere. Whilst the Olsens’ and Lohan’s films explore loneliness, identity, and relationships in their own right, these actress’ films seem more obvious choices as milestones in the teen film genre. This isn’t to say they aren’t worth exploring, but with Bynes’ recent announcement that she’d like to return to acting, now is as good a time as ever to reminisce over the importance of the actress’ choices.
Covering everything from dancing lobsters in judge’s courtrooms to the momentous events taking place in the girls’ high school bathroom, The Amanda Bynes show, starting when Bynes was just 13, was a perfect introduction to the actress for early 2000s pre-teens. Bynes’ strange yet fun roles on the show expressed her comedic range (and her willingness to be silly), and by the end of the show’s three-year run, the Nickelodeon series allowed the actress to transition into film.
In the same year, The Amanda Bynes Show and the actress’ appearances on the “SNL for the Nickelodeon audience” All That came to an end, Bynes co-starred with Malcolm in the Middle‘s Frankie Muniz in Shawn Levy’s Big Fat Liar. Somewhat perfectly described by Roger Ebert as “ideal for younger kids, and not painful for their parents,” the 2002 film took Bynes’ previous television-exclusive roles and built upon them, her ability to be charmingly funny, never a villain, honed into a more concentrated, clearer version of herself. Her performance was described as “kind of wonderful,” with Ebert noting “the movie’s charm is that it has confidence in this goofy story and doesn’t push it too hard.” The critic’s description of the film can easily be applied to Bynes’ acting, her charm exuding confidence, but never so much that it feels forced.Universal Pictures
A year later, Bynes starred in one of her best films to date (tied joint-first with She’s the Man) in 2003’s What a Girl Wants. Tackling more serious and in-depth topics, the film depicts the relationship between a single mother (played by Kelly Preston) and her daughter (Bynes). Eventually, Bynes’ character Daphne decides to find her father, the search for this unknown figure allowing Bynes to significantly reach and relate to an audience of “tweeners” that was always there, just often ignored. What’s more, with Colin Firth taking up the role of the father, What a Girl Wants saw Bynes hold her own opposite one of the world’s most established male actors. (To give a sense of Firth’s reception during this period, he had starred in Bridget Jones’ Diary two years before What a Girl Wants, and Love Actually in the same year).
As the New York Times’ review of the film points out, it borrows almost to the point of copying from 2001’s The Princess Diaries, with both films conceived from the same source material. The film is like Big Fat Liars in that it aims to charm rather than to present a more intellectual version of itself, and this charm hinges on Bynes’ performance. As Ebert, once again, notes, if viewers are a fan of Bynes, they’ll enjoy the film; if not, they won’t.Warner Bros. Pictures
By 2006, Bynes gained experience in voice acting as Piper in Robots (2005) and was shipwrecked with Chris Carmack in Lovewrecked. The latter film often feels as witless as Carmack’s character, with the pervading gnawing sense that Bynes could and should be a vehicle for better films that take her pre-teen crowd more seriously. Peter Bradshaw, who has for some reason seen the film, offered his thoughts in a succinct three-word sentence: “Silly, but fun.” Meanwhile, Robots remains Bynes’ most commercially successful film, having earned over $120 million at the box office. Her role as Piper foreshadowed what was to come for the actress, offering supporting but memorable roles in major commercially and critically successful films.
Before this turn into supporting roles, Bynes starred in 2006’s She’s the Man. Inspired by Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Bynes (as main character Viola) goes undercover as Sebastian and joins an all-boys’ school soccer team. Whilst no major feat in the history of Shakespearean screen adaptation, the film went on to win a Teen Choice Award for a comedy movie, an apt celebration to mark what seemed to be the end of Bynes’ pre-teen role model status as the pre-teens quickly became teenagers, outgrowing lighthearted fodder Lovewrecked and instead quickly steering towards Lohan’s PG-13 Mean Girls.
Critics seemed to have focused on the Bard’s influence in the 2006 gender switching film, with Empire criticizing its “wasted opportunity” and The A.V. Club the fact that Bynes’ “interpretation of teenage manhood” is surfaced more with comedy than thoughtfulness. Yet, these critics are focusing on the wrong things — whether or not the film is serious enough — and it’s Ebert, who seems to be a fan of reviewing Bynes’ oeuvre, who once again understands the Bynes-vehicle film. Ebert didn’t “believe the plot” of the film; however, “I did believe for the entire movie that Amanda Bynes was lovable.”DreamWorks Pictures
Each film with “Amanda Bynes” as the star may as well be called The Amanda Bynes Show, as they’re each more mature, longer reiterations of the goofy, fun, and memorable skits seen on the show. This isn’t to say Bynes has no range but instead points to her ability to make what would be uninteresting, soulless characters interesting and full of vitality.
2007 saw Bynes play Penny Pingleton in the watered down version of John Waters’ Hairspray. Starring Zac Efron, Hairspray introduced Bynes to a new generation of young viewers, with her role demoted to supporting rather than starring. By 2010, Bynes had turned into the closest she has gotten to a villain with Emma Stone’s breakout film Easy A, perhaps reintroducing Bynes to her now matured The Amanda Bynes Show viewers. Despite these supporting roles, her characters remained memorable, and with both films, Bynes proved she could do more than simply be comedic relief (with Bynes singing in Hairspray and straying from her nice girl persona in Easy A).
The only remnants left of Bynes’ early 2000s star status in the late 2007-10 period was Sydney White, acting as a quiet and ” perky” goodbye to the pre-teen impact of Bynes’ films. As Variety’s Lael Lowenstein says, the film “should satisfy Bynes fans looking for a pleasant, innocuous follow-up to her last vehicle.”
Notably, Bynes’ films don’t adhere to the infamous strictly defined groups and character stereotypes seen in so many teen films. Instead, Bynes’ characters often see the good in the people around them. This makes it easy to dismiss Bynes’ films as simply bubblegum fun. While the description is applicable to some of her work, they often hold more than that, exploring parental and class questions in fun ways. But even if the films don’t hold more than surface-level meaning, Bynes’ charm and fun asks: what does it matter if her films are just fun?