Daphne Reynolds (Amanda Bynes) is a 17-year-old American girl who dreams of her long lost father, with whom her mother (Kelly Preston) severed all ties before she was born. Tired of seeing other girls get the chance to spend time with their fathers, Daphne heads to England to meet her dad: political candidate Henry Dashwood (Colin Firth, "Bridget Jones's Diary"). Henry is surprised to meet his daughter at first, but soon asks her to stay the summer. During this time, Daphne learns that the rest of the Dashwood family doesn't care for her American antics, and she's forced to confront herself, and what she expects from her newly-found father.
For a picture that's all about standing out in a crowd and being yourself, "What a Girl Wants" (IMDb listing) is a hodgepodge of every pre-teen girl film cliche imaginable. There are gowns, boys, tiaras, a father's love, a cool mom, tattoos, piercings, rock music, and attention galore all thrown into the pot. It's a fantasy aimed directly at young women, and young women only. It takes me out of the running when it comes to loving it, but I can still recognize a film that's content to coast on little, and this is it. Under the eye of director Dennie Gordon ("Joe Dirt"), "Girl" doesn't bring many new ideas to the table, instead picking through the leftovers provided by such recent fare as "The Princess Diaries." The film stays within strict boundaries, and effectively suffocates itself with its own lethargic nature, and often sluggish pace. It's not that you can see the plot coming a mile away, but that the filmmakers don't seem to care that you can.
I'm also a little bit peeved at Gordon's portrayal of the English, who are all made to look like heartless, sniveling morons. True or not, this stereotype quickly becomes mean-spirited over the course of the film.
What Gordon does have to keep this bitter pill from being vomited back up is star Amanda Bynes. A former Nickelodeon staple, and parolee from last year's putrid feature "Big Fat Liar," Bynes is as charming a young actress as they make these days. With her gumball eyes and acting class expressiveness, Bynes takes the burden of carrying a feature all by herself and makes it seem easy. Frustratingly, Bynes appears to come from the Sandra Bullock school of pratfalls and stammering, but when the dust clears, there is a smart, perceptive actress underneath it all.
Co-star Colin Firth also turns lemons into lemonade with his performance. A master at English stiff-upper-lip acting, Firth is actually quite good here, successfully conveying the pain of a man who's missed out on 17 years of a child he's always wanted. Firth's moments with Bynes are the film's highlight, and a painful reminder that when the film isn't going through the motions, it's quite a pleasant diversion.
Admittedly, I could see a 12-year-old girl thinking this is the best film she's ever seen. I also find it difficult to be hard on any film that features a song by The Donnas on the soundtrack. But "What a Girl Wants" isn't nearly the graceful entertainment it should've been, and the result is a pretty dry moviegoing experience for the rest of the audience.
Filmfodder Grade: C-