Eye For Film >> Movies >> Wild Child (2008) Film Review
There are some films so high-concept that you practically need an oxygen mask to watch them; if the phrase “Clueless meets St Trinian’s” wasn’t mentioned during the pitching process I’ll eat my mortar board, with a side order of Latin primer.
Working Title’s tale of a Californian princess colliding head-on with a stuffy English boarding school certainly covers all the bases: fish out of water, Brits Versus Yanks, flawed but ultimately likeable central character learning life lessons and finding love... It’s a formula that’s stood them in good stead, through Love Actually and the brace of Bridget Jones’s all the way back to Four Weddings And A Funeral, but it’s beginning to feel like something of a standard template. And Wild Child’s similarity to their past successes only serves as a reminder that here the writing’s not as sharp and the characters not as strong as before.
The main character is Poppy (Roberts, last seen in Nancy Drew), a designer-clad, perpetually bored Valley Girl in a constant stop at her widowed dad (Quinn). Eventually, he loses patience and sends her to Abbey Mount School, a stately pile in the heart of Englandshire, in the hope that it will turn her into a proper young lady.
Initially, of course, Poppy is appalled at a world where the nearest designer boutique is two weeks’ journey away, lights out is at 9.30 and there’s no vegan option at school dinners. She plots a way to get expelled, but gradually realises that her dormitory mates are a good bunch, a wallet full of credit cards isn’t the only way to have fun – and the headmistress’ son is very fanciable...
Yes, it’s straight from the screenwriters’ manual and the final outcome is as inevitable as a Zimbabwean election result, but there’s a fair degree of fun to be had along the way. All the stock characters are there (nerdy French master, strapping games mistress) but it doesn’t try over-hard to be trendy (which was St Trinian’s downfall) and full credit to the actors, junior and senior, for giving their roles some semblance of realism.
Like Alicia Silverstone’s character in Clueless, Poppy is essentially a good-hearted but lonely girl who needs proper friends rather than hangers-on and Roberts catches well that fragile air of not-quite-grown-up vulnerability. Her dorm buddies (displaying a range of ethnicities and regional accents, just in case you thought it was one of those horrible elitist English boarding schools) are an equally natural and engaging lot, and for all the script’s manipulations you will find yourself rooting for them at the end. Alex Pettyfer (fresh from Stormbreaker) as the resident heart-throb doesn’t have much to do but, like the House of Lords, he does it very well.
On the grown-up side there’s a solid midfield of Brit performers, including Shirley Henderson as a VERY scary Scottish matron and Nick Frost (a bid to lasso in the Shaun Of The Dead demographic?) as a camp hairdresser. And Natasha Richardson’s headmistress is exactly the sort of teacher you wish you’d had – stern but fair, realising that her school’s some way down the Ofsted tables but determined not to turn it into an assembly line of academically and socially correct clones.
In fact, one of the incidental pleasures of the film is examining its schizophrenic approach to the whole idea of boarding schools – wallowing in all the English Heritage trappings while being at pains to make clear that this one, at least, isn’t just a snobs’ breeding ground. It’s interesting that the one completely unsympathetic character, the ‘horridious’ head girl who makes Poppy’s life a misery and tries to ruin her romance, is a caricatured upper class twit with a nasty streak to boot.
But this isn’t a film that stands too much socio-political analysis. It’s not Zero De Conduite, or If...; but hey, you knew that already. From the more-fun-than-the-star supporting cast to the idyllic, USA-friendly view of Britain and the cannily-assembled feelgood soundtrack, this is one of those films that does exactly what it says on the tin. Having Richard Curtis on writing duties would have helped, but there are still enough good lines to make for a passable Friday night out. And it’s hard not to warm to any film that has a schoolgirl version of the “I’m Spartacus!” scene.Reviewed on: 14 Aug 2008