It’s tough for a teenage actress in Hollywood these days. There are only so many roles to pick from, most leaning toward the sullen, lovesick type, subservient to men and dripping with self-doubt. There’s also the snotty, self-centered ghoul, patterned off the lives and loves of Paris Hilton. Emma Roberts plays somewhere near the latter with the English comedy “Wild Child,” but digs into the role with unsettling venom, revealing a certain dark spark that might be useful once she exits teendom and tries her hand at more adult-minded cinema. A slight but tart teen comedy, “Wild Child” carries some surprising bite, subverting the norm with a fine British cast helping to sell the pixy stick fantasy, buttressed by Roberts’s refreshing angry streak.A vapid, spoiled child of Malibu, Poppy (Emma Roberts) has pulled her last stunt of defiance with her aggravated father (Aidan Quinn). Sent to the Abbey Mount boarding school in England, Poppy is horrified by the weather, clothes, and stern manner of the staff and student body. Making enemies everywhere she goes, Poppy soon learns to trust her roommates (including Juno Temple from “Year One” and Kimberly Nixon), developing into a loyal leader of her class, looking to usurp the controlling ways of campus overachiever, Harriet (Georgia King). Trying to woo the headmistress’s son (Alex Pettyfer) while hoping to impress the headmistress (the late Natasha Richardson), Poppy learns important lessons of personal value as she sheds her material ways for a genuine education.
"Emma Roberts can kick your ass"
Not to get too carried away, “Wild Child” is certainly a formulaic teen diversion, scripted with a distinct absence of imagination by Lucy Dahl (daughter of Roald). Following a rigid outline of distaste and disgrace, Dahl imagines Poppy’s English adventure as a chance to run through the basics of tween cinema, including the time-tested hurdles of boys, fashion, and cliques to use as challenges for our heroine as she battles her bitter fish-out-of-water dilemma.
The screenplay is primitive, but first-time director Nick Moore throws a knuckleball executing the material. There’s a slight edge to the early going of the film that’s amusing, imagining Poppy not only as a brat, but a brat with some rage issues, brought on by her L.A. privilege and the lasting wounds caused by the premature loss of her mother. Moore turns Poppy into a rather prickly pear, instead of an average depiction of snobbery. It’s an interesting performance from the young star, enjoying the benefits of a large, gifted British ensemble, marked by frothy appearances from the likes of Nick Frost and Shirley Henderson. The group effort is valued, but Roberts makes for a compelling lead, especially when she lets loose with a smattering of curses and snarls. I’ve never seen this side of the actress before. The ugliness suits her.
“Wild Child” burns through a routine of cute boys, fitting room fashions shows, dance-offs, and sporting empowerment (Poppy leads the lacrosse team to unforeseen heights). It’s predictable but rarely boring, at least for the first hour, which trucks along with an enjoyable energy. Once Moore and Dahl demand a villain appear to help Poppy properly vault her third-act worries, “Wild Child” arranges a dreary arson subplot that’s both strained and useless, following tedious teen cinema blueprints that snuff out the fun. The big game finale restores the vigor, but also scarfs down cliché too hungrily.“Wild Child” is trivial but passable, coasting on a fine layer of appealing thespian charm and a frisky tone of irritability that one doesn’t see enough from this genre.
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originally posted: 11/26/09 16:13:34