What a Girl Wants (2003)

what a girl wants

You have to give credit to the makers of What a Girl Wants, a middling teen film that knows exactly how to hit its audience’s sweet spot. American girls with a touch of Anglophilia will appreciate this effort even if others do not, and while it doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from its peers, the movie provides a good dose of escapism for those stuck Stateside.

Amanda Bynes stars as Daphne, a teenager on the cusp of young adulthood who longs for something more in life, to which I say, get in line. She lives in New York’s Chinatown with her hippie musician single mom (Kelly Preston) – because of course, and the two work the wedding circuit. Daughter does catering while mom provides the entertainment, a detail that matters insomuch as it gives Daphne an excuse to drone on about how her greatest dream is to have a father-daughter dance. This is her impetus to jet off to merry England to find the father she never knew, Henry Colin Firth Dashwood, Earl of Some Place or Other.

She arrives with nary a plan but, through sheer American determination, finds her way to Henry’s estate, apparently accessible by bus. He’s shocked, his mother’s (Eileen Atkins) stunned, and Henry’s fiancée (Anna Chancellor) is positively horrified, not the least because he is running a much publicized campaign for the House of Commons with an eye on the prime ministership. The good earl throws political caution to the wind, deciding to spend time with his daughter even if it means potential clashes with the crusty elites.

Bynes makes a good ambassador for young American girls abroad, even if she isn’t the best actress. She has a twinkly-eyed appeal, and you know that Daphne, despite a few hard knocks, will always brush herself off and get back up. This girl is going to end up on her feet no matter how many times she’s mocked by the Henley Regatta crowd for her (lack of) style and her freewheeling ways. She’s also sensible enough to pick the soft-spoken middle-class guy (Oliver James) over a toff named Armistead. What refreshing resilience in a young female character, no matter how low the stakes.

That American brand of egalitarianism works because of pitched performances by the English actors. Chancellor and Christina Cole, who plays Chancellor’s spoiled daughter, are so insufferably snobbish that they must be poking fun at American stereotypes of the English ruling class. Together with a sniveling Jonathan Pryce as Henry’s political advisor and potential father-in-law, the evil triumvirate is hell bent on keeping the grubby Yank out. Firth is decidedly less pompous but reserved as ever. When Daphne gives her father a picture album with her childhood photos, he doesn’t know how to respond. It’s as if he’s never received a sentimental token before. As Atkins’s character puts it, “No hugs, dear. I’m British. We only show affection to dogs and horses.” Ah yes. Then let’s just give this film a polite nod.

Released: 2003
Prod: Denise Di Novi, Bill Gerber, Hunt Lowry
Dir: Dennie Gordon
Writer: Jenny Bicks, Elizabeth Chandler
Cast: Amanda Bynes, Colin Firth, Kelly Preston, Oliver James, Eileen Atkins, Anna Chancellor, Jonathan Pryce, Christina Cole, Sylvia Sims
Time: 105 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

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