What a Girl Wants
It would be easy to say that "What a Girl Wants" is the kind of Cinderella story that gives Cinderella stories a bad name. The film lacks the elements of pain and injustice that come with the original, and misses the magic that turns a scullery maid into a princess. It's perky where it could have been cathartic and shallow where it might have had resonance. And yet the story of a girl looking for her lost father triggers so many unexpressed emotions that I, along with everyone around me at the screening, was in tears at the final reunion.
Amanda Bynes, a Nickelodeon star, plays Daphne Reynolds, love child of an affair her mother Libby (Kelly Preston), an aging rock singer who lives in Chinatown and fronts a band that now plays Long Island weddings, had seventeen years before with Britain's Lord Henry Dashwood (Colin Firth), an affair broken up by Henry's political advisor Alastair Payne (Jonathan Pryce), as being unsuitable for an earl. Daphne has always wished that her father would come for her some day, but since he hasn't, when she turns seventeen she takes off for London to meet him. Forget that the film's back-lot New York Chinatown street has no pavement; forget that Lord Dashwood lives in a palace on a thousand acres that appear to be located in the middle of London (Daphne can take the bus to his front gate).
As the story begins he has renounced his hereditary place in the House of Lords in order to run for a seat in Commons. He is also engaged to Payne's daughter Glynnis (Anna Chancellor), who comes with her own obnoxious daughter, just Daphne's age. When Daphne shows up she finds an ally in Henry's mother Lady Jocelyn (the great Eileen Atkins, whose well-lined face is the most beautiful thing in the film). Henry stammers, is confused (Libby never told him she was pregnant), is loosened up by Daphne's uninhibited (read American) behavior, and finally makes the obvious choice of reuniting with Libby. End of film.
Bynes is unquenchably cute here, staying just on the right side of obnoxious; she has good comic timing and knows how to take over a scene. Preston is also good, with the rare quality of being transparent to the camera; we know what she thinks and feels without having to hear her say it. Firth, though, is given only two cues to work with: confusion and emotional constipation. They get old very quickly.
Trivia note: "What a Girl Wants" was adapted by Jenny Bicks and Elizabeth Chandler from a 1968 play and script by William Douglas Home, brother to Alec Douglas-Home, who also renounced his title, ran for Commons, was elected, and even briefly served as Prime Minister.