The film was released on July 16, 2004. While it received negative reviews from critics, the film was a box office success, grossing $70 million against its $19 million budget, and spawned three straight-to-video sequels.
Sam Montgomery lives in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, with her widowed father Hal, who runs a popular sports-themed diner. Hal soon marries a vain and selfish gold digger named Fiona, who has socially-awkward fraternal twin daughters, Brianna and Gabriella. During the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Hal is killed when he runs to save Fiona. Having supposedly left no will, Fiona receives all of his belongings, including the house, the diner, and to her dismay, Sam.
Eight years later, Sam is employed as a waitress at the diner to save money to attend Princeton University, but she is regularly tormented by her step-family, who constantly insult her and treat her as if they were popular, despite being regarded as obnoxious. Sam struggles to cope socially at North Valley High School, where queen bee cheerleader Shelby Cummings also torments her and calls her "Diner Girl", along with other members of the popular clique.
Sam confides in her online pen pal "Nomad" about her dream to attend Princeton, a dream which he also shares. However, Nomad's true identity is Austin Ames, the popular, yet unhappy, quarterback of the school's football team and Shelby's ex-boyfriend, although she refuses to accept that he has broken up with her. The reason why he is unhappy is because Austin's father planned for him to go to the University of Southern California with a football scholarship rather than going to Princeton. Nomad proposes that they meet in person at the school's Halloween themed homecoming dance. On the night of the dance, Fiona orders Sam to work the night shift at the diner, then leaves to drive Brianna and Gabriella to the dance. Initially reluctant, Sam is convinced by her best friend, Carter Ferrell, to go to the dance and meet her mysterious online friend.
Rhonda, Sam's other best friend, and the rest of the diner staff also convince her to disobey Fiona and go to the dance anyway. Sam, wearing a mask and a beautiful white dress, meets "Nomad" at the dance, and is surprised to learn that he is Austin, who had become smitten with her upon her entrance. The two decide to leave the party to walk alone and get to know each other a little better. While sharing a romantic dance, Sam and Austin begin to fall in love. But just as Austin is about to unmask her, Sam's cell phone alarm goes off, warning her to return to the diner before Fiona returns at midnight. She leaves without revealing her identity to Austin, and drops her phone on the way out.
Austin picks up her phone and begins a desperate search to figure out who his "Cinderella" really is, but every girl at school claims to be the mysterious owner of the phone. Sam is reluctant to reveal her identity to Austin, feeling that he will not accept her due to her being ordinary and Austin being popular. When Austin comes into the diner one day, Sam is forced to help him and, after a talk, she attempts to reveal her identity to him, but is cut off by Fiona. Sam's stepsisters discover Sam and Austin's email relationship, and (after failing to convince Austin that one of them is the owner of the phone) convince Shelby that Sam tried to steal Austin from her. During a pep rally, they and the other cheerleaders humiliate Sam in front of the entire school and expose her identity as well as naming her an impostor. Austin, hurt by Sam's secrecy, does not step up to defend her, and Sam leaves the pep rally in tears.
Like Austin, Sam had been accepted at Princeton, only to be duped by Fiona into believing she was rejected by having a fake rejection letter made. Sam then decides to give up on her dreams and resigns herself to working at the diner, but Rhonda gives Sam a pep talk not to lose hope. When her stepsisters come into the diner, they slam the door, causing a guitar to fall off the wall, tearing the wallpaper down with it, and blame it on Sam. Sam then sees her father's words, "Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game," and regains her confidence (in real life, this quote came from Babe Ruth). She stands up to Fiona and her stepsisters stating that she will no longer put up with their emotional abuse of her, quits her job at the diner, and moves in with Rhonda, who also quits along with the entire diner staff, all of whom had only put up with so many years of Fiona's abuse after Hal's death for Sam's sake. The customers, who witness the entire scene, promptly leave in disgust as well.
Before the school's homecoming football game, Sam confronts Austin about his cowardice and not defending her at the pep rally. Before the final play of the game, he sees Sam making her way out of the stands, and finally stands up to his father, saying he wants to attend Princeton rather than simply play football all his life. He chases after Sam and apologizes. She accepts his apology, and they share their first kiss as rain falls over the drought-plagued valley (at the same time, the North Valley Fighting Frogs win the football game). Soon after, Sam finds Hal's will hidden in her childhood fairy-tale book, stating that all of his money & possessions actually belong to her. Since this leaves her as the rightful and legal owner, Sam sells her step-family's fancy cars so that she can pay for college, and Fiona, who signed the will as a witness but claims to have never seen it before, is arrested for financial fraud and violating California's child labor laws for all the times she made Sam work long hours at the diner in spite of her being a minor.
Sam finds that she was in fact accepted at Princeton; the acceptance letter is retrieved from the garbage by her stepsisters, who knew where Fiona hid it. Fiona, Brianna, and Gabriella are made by the District Attorney to work off the money they stole from Sam at the diner, which is restored to its former glory by its new owners, Sam and Rhonda. Also, Austin's father comes to accept his son's desire to attend Princeton. Things even work out in the end for Carter as he makes a commercial for acne medication. Shelby, having previously rejected Carter for being an outcast even after he was a proper gentleman to her at the Halloween dance, aims to pursue him since he is now popular, but after finally seeing her true shallow and cruel nature, he turns her down for Astrid, the high school's goth DJ and announcer. The film ends with Sam and Austin, now officially a couple, driving off to Princeton together after Sam gets her phone back from Austin.Hilary Duff as Samantha "Sam" Montgomery
Hannah Robinson as Young Sam
Chad Michael Murray as Austin Ames
Whip Hubley as Harold Montgomery, Sam's dad
Jennifer Coolidge as Fiona, Sam's stepmom
Regina King as Rhonda
Dan Byrd as Carter Farrell
Madeline Zima as Brianna
Carlie Westerman as Young Brianna
Andrea Avery as Gabriella
Lilli Babb as Young Gabriella
Julie Gonzalo as Shelby Cummings
Brad Bufanda as David
Simon Helberg as Terry
J. D. Pardo as Ryan
Aimee Lynn Chadwick as Astrid, the campus DJ
Erica Hubbard as Madison
Kady Cole as Caitlyn
Mary Pat Gleason as Eleanor
Paul Rodriguez as Bobby
Lin Shaye as Mrs. Wells
Kevin Kilner as Andy Ames, Austin's dad
James Eckhouse as Mr. Farrell
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 11% based on 103 reviews, with an average rating of 3.6/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "An uninspired, generic updating of the classic fairy tale." On Metacritic, the film has a score on 25 out of 100, based on 30 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A–" on an A+ to F scale.
Roger Ebert called A Cinderella Story "a lame, stupid movie". The film was nominated for five Teen Choice Awards at the 2005 ceremony, winning the award for Choice Movie Blush Scene, the same year Duff won the Kids Choice Awards for Favorite Movie Actress. In 2005, Duff also received a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actress nomination.
In its opening weekend, the film grossed $13,623,350 in 2,625 theaters in the United States and Canada, ranking #4 at the box office, behind I, Robot, Spider-Man 2 and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. By the end of its run, A Cinderella Story grossed $51,438,175 domestically and $18,629,734 internationally, totaling $70,067,909 worldwide.
The film was followed by three direct-to-video sequels, Another Cinderella Story (2008), A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song (2011) and A Cinderella Story: If the Shoe Fits (2016). The sequels use the themes and situations but do not contain any characters from the first film. Unlike the first film, the sequels also include musical and dance themes.