Dir: Dennie Gordon. US. 2003. 95mins.
Although the trailers made it look like another trashy teen flick, What A Girl Wants surprisingly possesses a degree of class. The fairy-tale story of a Brooklyn teenager who runs away to England to discover her aristocratic dad recalls Disney smash The Princess Diaries with its genuinely disarming characters and the sweet message at its heart.
A starring vehicle for talented teen Amanda Bynes, a US TV star from Nickelodeon shows All That and The Amanda Show, What A Girl Wants opened with an OK $11.4m at the domestic box office and, trusting that word-of-mouth is strong, could stay afloat in the marketplace for a few weeks yet. At least in the domestic market, movies aimed at young girls such as The Princess Diaries, A Walk To Remember and Legally Blonde have been proving enormously profitable for their respective distributors, and the relatively inexpensive What A Girl Wants should follow that trend.
In the international markets, where there are likewise millions of under-served young girls who want their own movies, its Cinderella set-up and feelgood factor will also serve it well - especially in the current gloom of global affairs.
Most welcome surprise of all is Bynes, whose perky cuteness beside two Horse Guards on the poster appears like a nauseating indication of further cloying fish-out-of-water horrors in the film. Fortunately she is more palatable than she appears on paper, giving a well-realised performance as a confident but slightly damaged teen. Nor is England portrayed in the ultra-cliched way one would expect from the poster. While the palatial mansion and estate in which she lands seem to be positioned rather incongruously in central London, the English characters are generally sharp-tongued and droll - more Four Weddings than Mary Poppins.
Loosely based on the 1958 movie The Reluctant Debutante starring Sandra Dee and Rex Harrison, the film starts with a prologue in which the young Englishman Henry Dashwood (Firth) falls for bohemian American Libby (Kelly Preston) on a Moroccan holiday and the two marry. However, when he takes her home to his family seat in England, his father dies and he must immediately assume the mantle of Lord Dashwood.
Libby is told by his ruthless advisor Alastair Payne (Pryce) to give him his freedom and she abandons the marriage and flees to New York. But unbeknownst to Henry, Libby was pregnant and 17 years later, her daughter Daphne (Bynes) has a yearning to meet her father not least because she never gets to have the father-daughter dance at weddings or parties. Impulsively, she gets on a plane to London where she seeks out Lord Dashwood and breaks the news to him.
He meanwhile is standing for election to parliament and is on the brink of marrying the pushy Glynnis (nicely malevolent Chancellor) and assuming her daughter (Christina Cole) as his own. Stunned that he has a daughter and still smarting that Libby left him, Henry warms to Daphne but after she displays her unconventional style at a few stuffy social functions, he determines to ensure that she acquires a degree of good English breeding. She meanwhile has embarked on a romance with a young musician (James) and is faced with the quandary of changing who she is or losing her father.
It's a fun film principally for pre-teens and teens which has a few incidental pleasures for grown-ups including some nice one-liners from Brit stalwarts like Eileen Atkins ("No hugging, my dear. We British only show affection to dogs and horses.").
Prod cos: Di Novi Pictures, Gerber Pictures, Gaylord Films.
Worldwide dist: Warner Bros.
Exec prods: EK Gaylord II, Alison Greenspan, Casey La Scala.
Prods: Denise Di Novi, Bill Gerber, Hunt Lowry.
Scr: Jenny Bicks, Elizabeth Chandler.
Cinematography: Andrew Dunn.
Prod des: Michael Carlin.
Ed: Charles McClelland.
Mus: Rupert Gregson-Williams.
Main cast: Amanda Bynes, Colin Firth, Kelly Preston, Eileen Atkins, Anna Chancellor, Jonathan Pryce, Oliver James