Ahead of Radio Rebel’s 2012 premiere, The New York Times called it “a splash of anti-establishment insouciance between all of this network’s shiny-cheeked go-getters and goofballs.” But I think Tara (Debby Ryan) is a go-getter at heart, even if she’s anti-establishment. She singlehandedly develops a radio show, which she secretly hosts, and uses the show to shake up the status quo at her high school. The film was directed by Peter Howitt and was based on Danielle Joseph’s novel Shrinking Violet.
You might be familiar with the Debby Ryan jokes that exploded on the Internet earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic. Ryan’s Tara is painfully shy, and her over-the-top “shy face” became a source of laughter and nostalgia for those who watched the film. But Tara is only shy in her real, everyday life. When she goes home every afternoon, she transforms into Radio Rebel, disguising her voice and leading her classmates to face their fears and buck authority. Tara’s platform grows when her stepdad gives her airtime at his radio station. She uses her influence to bring out confidence and unity among her peers, but the school principal isn’t having it.
Principal Moreno is all about the status quo, showing early in the film that she favors popular girl Stacy (who gives off Megan Fox circa Holiday in the Sun vibes). The very idea of Radio Rebel is upsetting to Principal Moreno, so she sets out to crush any influence the DJ has over the school. Instead, Radio Rebel (with the help of the local station and her best friend Audrey) only gets louder, even when the principal threatens expulsion. Tara has to strategize when Principal Moreno takes it a step further and cancels prom over Radio Rebel. All the students are upset, including those most likely to be prom king and queen, Gavin (from the band The Gs) and Stacy. Though he’s basically dating Stacy, Gavin has shown appreciation for Radio Rebel’s cause. Tara is majorly crushing on him, too.
To solve the prom problem, Tara comes up with a prom of her own and calls it MORP, exciting the whole school when she shares the news on air as Radio Rebel. But in all her boldness, she makes a critical mistake and gives Stacy a clue as to her DJ identity. Stacy does some heinous things, inviting Tara to a party just to try to catch her in the act, and then locking Tara in the custodial closet right before Tara is supposed to perform a scene with Gavin for drama class. Stacy is one of those populars that walks around treating her so-called best friend as her servant. This does not seem normal. For all the popular circles I’ve ever seen, there’s been more than one person leading the in-crowd. Maybe I’ve just not come across this behavior, but it’s so unusual to watch kids trail behind the queen bee and do everything for her.
We find out that Stacy was teased as a child, and winning the prom queen crown means everything to her. She’s desperate to feel that she is beautiful, and Tara lets her have that. On the night of MORP, Tara slowly finds her place onstage as queen, confessing that she is Radio Rebel. Moreno trots in to expel Tara, but all the other kids chant that they, too, are Radio Rebel. Finally, Tara gives Stacy the crown as soon as Stacy agrees to say she’s Radio Rebel, too. Gavin sings a special song. He and Tara get together, he gives her a little kiss on the cheek. The end! You should watch this one at least once.