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IN SHORT: 13 or 14 year olds will cheer. Parents will pray for The End. [Rated PG for Mild Language.]
Since we don't have kids, we're working from what we know our nieces would go bananas over. This is pretty close to "it". What A Girl Wants is a fine example of why we plant with a film's target demographic, in this case, teens -- girls for the romance and guys for the babe factor. Teens are the reason that movies like What A Girl Wants exist. If we were a fourteen year old fan of teevee star Amanda Bynes, we would probably have been giggling and clapping and, occasionally, cheering along with all the fourteen years old (give or take) kidlets in our screening.
But we're not. This is a terrible movie. Generic. Bland. Adequately acted by its teen stars and a walk through for its adults. One hundred percent been there-done that-seen it all before too many dozens of times to care. How did it get made? Do the math. Thirteen year old viewers, television aside, haven't gotten close to that been there-seen it before level of self-recognition. It's new to them
Dennie Gordon's direction is so targeted at Bynes' fans that there are literally tons of gratuitous shots of the cute, young star looking cute and young and star-ish. These get in the way of developing anything resembling a substantial story -- though we can't honestly say we were expecting anything deep from this one. What we do expect is that, even if the story is simple, that basic elements of story construction be present and bearable to watch. Borrowing heavily from Cinderella and fables like it provides the basic elements but being cute is not a story element. Unless you're a teen. There's a cute guy and a cute girl -- there's a reason marketing departments exist -- and a story that's so lightweight that even the smart kids who know crap when they see it have plenty of fodder to respond to with thrown popcorn or catcalls.
That didn't happen in our audience. We can only hope . . .
Living a life more in keeping with the 1960s than the mid 80s where it begins, is Libby Reynolds (Kelly Preston), a musician who finds herself stranded in Morocco. There, she falls off a sand dune into the hands of her own personal Prince Charming, the British nobleman who will assume the title Lord Dashwood (Colin Firth). Due to the machinations of Dashwood's assistant Alistair Payne (Jonathan Pryce), Libby ditched the duke (sic) early on and has raised the child as a solo mom. Payne delivered a carefully crafted, meaning forged, "dear john" letter to the lord, who has spent all the intervening time devoted to advancing his political career. By the time his previously unknown daughter, Daphne (Amanda Bynes), shows up on his mansionstep the Lord has decided to step down and seek a place in the House of Commons, as an elected representative of the people. The last thing a proper ex-Lord needs, of course, is a rambunctious, high spirited and cute as all get out seventeen year old (possibly) illegitimate daughter gumming up the works, but that's what he gets.
Don't dwell on that "illegitimate" bit too long. The story doesn't -- no need for heavy duty stuff in a light and fluffy entertainment and, for those who carry a Moral Majority membership card, deals with the quandary by the time the film is done. Just like any good fairy tale, there is an evil stepmom -- Dashwood's fiancee Glynnis Payne (Anna Chancellor) -- and an evil stepsister-to-be, Clarissa (Christina Cole). The pair are daughter and granddaughter of the aforementioned assistant Alistair and all are properly English snotty. The role of the fairy godmother is played by Dashwood mum, (Eileen Atkins) and there's a youthful Prince Charming equivalent in the form of musician Ian Wallace (Oliver James).
But any conflict present in the rehash of a story is left, like a dead skunk in the middle of the road, screaming to high heaven "HELLO!!!! There's a plot point to be exploited here!!!! And here and here and here!!!! Anyone paying attention?? HELLO!!!"
So, what do you think you get when you mix proper, stuffy, upper-class English with a free-spirited, raised like it was still the 60s American? A place to park the kids and nothing more. If you're a parent worrying about how suitable a story with words like "illegitimate" in it is for your thirteen or fourteen year old, don't. If you are still at the point where you sneak into the back row to keep your eye on the kidlets, just in case, don't. We'll never know the pain of childbirth but we sat through this thing start to finish and can now fully empathize. But . . .
Even more frightening, from this critic's POV is that What A Girl Wants, as terrible as it is, still has better story construction than at least a quarter of the films written for adults. We don't think the kids are stupid but no story is still no story.
Just like any kidlet flick so specifically targeted to the demo, no dollar rating. Park 'em and run for cover.
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