What Dreams Are Made Of: On Lizzie McGuire and the Sexual Innocence of Early 2000s Cinema

Phoebe Nir on the impact of Disney summer movies on her debut feature film, Eco Village, which world premieres at Rotterdam this week.

It’s 2001, and a Vespa cruises down a sunny Roman alleyway.

Lizzie McGuire, a klutzy nobody whose shambolic attempt to collect her middle-school diploma resulted in national press coverage, has somehow found herself wrapped around Italy’s most desirable male popstar as he rides his bright red hog through the cobblestone streets.

And I am furious, because I know it should be me instead.

When my creative collaborator Linds Gray and I are asked about the movies that influenced us the most, we can churn out some high-brow responses, but the truth is that few films have evoked the agony and ecstasy that we knew as pre-teens better than Disney and Nickelodeon’s TV movies, where true love fit a young starlet as comfortably as a pair of low-rise denim bellbottoms. The early 2000s offered a feast of summer coming-of-age stories in which ugly ducklings of varying plausibility met handsome suitors on vacation, and it’s these movies that moved our hearts to yearning. And maybe that’s a problem.

Hilary Duff and Yani Gellman in The Lizzie McGuire Movie.

It’s summer 2010, and Linds is making out behind the dormitories at Nike running camp. The guy is nice, but like a true performance athlete, Linds is mostly interested in practicing her technique before the real events kick off in the fall. When Mary-Kate and Ashley bid their French beaus adieu in Passport to Paris, Jean and Michel agreeably fade away; Paolo and Ryan from When in Rome and James and Brian from Winning London accept similarly Irish goodbyes. Why, then, can’t Linds seem to outrun her sprinter, who pesters her through the entirety of the next school year with a series of increasingly hostile messages?

I have the opposite problem. I like bad boys – and we’re talking really bad, like Zac Efron in High School Musical-level bad. In 2014, by which point I should know better, I fall for a guy at the hippie commune-cum-puppet theater where I am camping for the summer. No boy ever told Amanda Bynes that he wasn’t willing to be exclusive, but that’s just what this boy tells me, and my brain pretty much explodes.

That brain explosion led to the creation of Linds’ and my first film collaboration, Eco Village, which is set to premiere nearly a decade after that fateful love affair (cue another brain explosion). And in many ways, Eco Village is a post-mortem examination of the impact that the cheerful media of the early 2000s had on a generation of young women who were inadequately prepared to enter the complex world of adult sexuality.

Phoebe Nir (left) and her creative collaborator on Eco Village, Linds Gray (right).

What’s wonderful and intoxicating about these tween chick flicks is their rich portrayals of young girls’ fantasies, but that’s also what makes them dangerous. Young girls are naturally innocent and optimistic, which may be why most cultures and generations have focused on teaching them cautionary tales. When Little Red Riding Hood strays off the path to Grandma’s house, she gets eaten by a wolf. By comparison, when 13-year-old Lizzie McGuire skives off her school trip to ride a strange boy’s motorcycle around Rome, she meets no pickpockets or cat-callers, and he doesn’t even try for first base.

Unless their lives have been touched by extreme danger, 13-year-old girls have no concept of the male libido, and as such, the love interests in these early 2000s movies were as crotchless as Ken dolls, although one does have to respect the hair. These teenaged Prince Charmings were an impossible tangle of contradictions: though cool and popular, they only had eyes for the lead protagonist; though emotional and devoted, they were happy to part ways once she had completed her adventure; though eager to share a romantic First Kiss™, no tongues, hands or (God forbid) genitals ever crossed a boundary.

Phoebe Nir on the set of Eco Village (left), and Alex Breaux, Lindsay Burdge, Eric Austin and Devika Bhise in the film (right).

In Eco Village, Robin, played by Sidney Flanigan, has grown up watching these stories on TV and at the movies, and has yet to encounter the real-world experiences that will disabuse her of her naivete. Robin conceives of sexuality as something sweet and pretty, with no notion of its catastrophe. She is shocked to discover that the man she desires has desires of his own, and that these may not include loyally cheering her on from the sidelines as she pursues her personal development goals.

And yet. There is something truthful and eternal about these movies we loved so much growing up, their stories universal and their archetypes profound. It is good to follow your heart and seek adventures, and it is possible to wear cute clothes and pursue an exciting career and have a nice boyfriend all in the same summer. There’s a reason why I recently got choked up watching New York Minute, when Ashley Olsen wins a scholarship to Oxford University despite having failed to show up for the speech competition. (Mary-Kate dutifully impersonates her sister on stage and delivers impromptu remarks citing “Canadian professor Avril Lavigne-stein”; the competition’s judge commends the girls, saying, “It’s not just that you wanted to win … it’s that you absolutely refused to fail.”)

Sidney Flanigan in Phoebe Nir’s Eco Village.

Even if our innocence has faded with time, millennial women can still access the joy and optimism of female pre-adolescence that’s preserved forever in these iconic films. Each brightly colored DVD cover beckons a journey with Lizzie, Mary-Kate, Ashley, Amanda, Ginger Fautley or the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants to a magical place where it’s always summer, and skin is always clear, and newsboy caps will never go out of style.

Phoebe Nir is the writer-director of the new film Eco Village, starring Sidney Flanigan, Alex Breaux and Lindsay Burdge, which will premiere at the 2024 International Film Festival Rotterdam on February 1. She holds a BA from Brown University in Writing for Performance and an MA in Drama Therapy from New York University. Her work in musical theater has been showcased in New York City at Joe’s Pub, Feinstein’s 54 Below, LaMaMa Theater, and the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop. As a singer-songwriter, she released two critically acclaimed EPs –Side Hustle and Red Tape Nation – and opened for the Modern English and James Chance & the Contortions at SXSW. Find her @phoebe_devere on TikTok and YouTube to learn more about Oxfordianism, the theory that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the works of William Shakespeare under a penname.