"What a Girl Wants" is a modern-day fairy tale for preteens with an exceptionally strong passion for romantic fantasy. Compared with this, the similar "Princess Diaries" is a tough-minded work of realism, yet on its own narrow terms "What a Girl Wants" works well enough. It has a decided plus in its appealing young star, Amanda Bynes, last seen opposite Frankie Muniz in "Big Fat Liar."
What Bynes' 16-year-old Daphne wants is a father. Her band-singer mother, Libby (Kelly Preston), and her British father, Henry (Colin Firth), crossed paths in a Moroccan desert, fell in love and had a Bedouin wedding ceremony. But back in London, free-spirited Libby was overwhelmed by Henry's aristocratic family, which was in turn aghast at her hippie-like unsuitability. The sudden death of Henry's politically powerful father turned Henry into Lord Dashwood, and his late father's wily advisor, Alistair Payne (Jonathan Pryce), maneuvered a pregnant Libby into decamping to the U.S.
Seventeen years pass, with mother and daughter living picturesquely in an apartment in New York's Chinatown. Libby and her band play at weddings, where Daphne works as a waitress. Libby encourages her daughter to plan for college, but first Daphne takes off to London to seek out the father who does not know she exists.
In the meantime, Henry is running for office and could in time become prime minister. Alistair is not only managing the campaign, but also maneuvering his aggressive daughter (Anna Chancellor), who has an equally obnoxious daughter (Christina Cole) Daphne's age, into becoming Lady Dashwood. Daphne scales the walls of the vast ancestral Dashwood estate and easily charms Henry and his mother (Eileen Atkins). Daphne's all-American spontaneity wins over the aristos but also causes a sufficient number of inadvertent calamities to require Henry to remind her of the duties that go along with being a Dashwood. Naturally, Daphne wants her father to win the election, but along the way she discovers the importance of being herself.
As a reworking of 1958's "The Reluctant Debutante," starring Sandra Dee and Rex Harrison, "What a Girl Wants," which was directed by Dennie Gordon and written by Jenny Bicks and Elizabeth Chandler, is likely to seem short on subtlety and credibility to anyone over 13. One can accept that Henry's sense of duty and feelings of rejection prevented him from running after Libby, and Libby's pride in raising Daphne on her own is believable. But how for a second could the intelligent and charming Henry let himself become engaged to such an obvious social-climbing barracuda as Chancellor's Glynnis, with her shallow snob of a daughter? And there's no explanation as to why Henry's sensible mother so quickly opens her heart to Daphne when she apparently did not do the same with Daphne's likable mother.
Gordon manages some heart-tugging and some humor, and works in a down-to-earth boyfriend for Daphne (Oliver James), but the make-believe becomes increasingly just that. However, "What a Girl Wants" could just be the kind of fantasy more than one will want to see.
'What a Girl Wants'
MPAA rating: PG for mild language
Times guidelines: Suitable for all ages
Amanda Bynes...Daphne Reynolds
Colin Firth... Henry Dashwood
Kelly Preston...Libby Reynolds
Eileen Atkins...Jocelyn Dashwood
Anna Chancellor...Glynnis Payne
Jonathan Pryce...Alistair Payne
A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation in association with Gaylord Films of a Di Novi Pictures/Gerber Pictures production. Director Dennie Gordon. Producers Denise Di Novi, Bill Gerber, Hunt Lowry. Executive producers E.K. Gaylord II, Alison Greenspan, Casey La Scala. Screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Elizabeth Chandler; based on the screenplay by William Douglas Home. Cinematography Andrew Dunn. Editor Charles McClelland. Music Rupert Gregson-Williams. Costumes Shay Cunliffe. Production designer Michael Carlin. Art director Karen Wakefield. Set decorator Rebecca Alleway. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
In general release.