Daphne Reynolds wants her mother to tell her the story again, the one she’s heard since before she can remember. It’s a tale about how a young and carefree American musician met her Prince Charming while traveling through Morocco. The two fell deeply in love and were married in a beautiful (but not legally binding) Bedouin ceremony. Naturally, when the Prince took his free-spirited bride home to Britain, his blue-blooded family was less than pleased. "What was he thinking?" they muttered. "She’ll ruin his future!" they moaned. The situation only deteriorated from there as the family frowned and the servants schemed. The musician was told by the Prince’s associate that he no longer wanted her and she tearfully returned to the United States. The Prince remained in England, having been informed—by the same associate—that his wife had run off with someone else. He's never even told that shortly thereafter, his faithful and beloved wife gave birth to a little girl named Daphne ...
Seventeen years have passed since that fateful parting, and while Daphne’s father isn’t actually a prince, he’s the next best thing. Henry Dashwood, a member of the British House of Lords, is poised to seize an even more influential seat in Parliament and perhaps to even become the Prime Minister of England one day. Not that Daphne cares. She only wants to meet her dad. But her mother regularly thwarts her efforts to make contact, concerned for her daughter’s emotional wellbeing. Finally, Daphne’s had enough. She packs her bags, grabs her passport and heads for the airport. Hours later she’s on Lord Henry’s doorstep with a smile on her face and a birth certificate in her hand.
Even though Daphne has spent her entire life thinking about meeting her dad, there are a few details she hasn’t considered. Such as how Henry’s glacial fiancée and equally frigid stepdaughter-to-be might react to her intrusion into their oh-so-carefully planned lives. Or what Henry’s scheming "friend," Alistair Payne—that dastardly associate who broke up her parents—might do. Or how she, a relatively graceless New Yorker, might fit into the British aristocracy should her father take her under his wing.
positive elements: Much screen time is devoted to many positive things. And the need for an intact family is as good a place to start as any. Ever since she was young, Daphne has felt as though she were missing something. Namely, a father. This all-consuming yearning colors her entire life. Whenever she attends a wedding and sees the father/daughter dance, it breaks her heart since she knows she may never have that privilege. In a time when all too often movie and TV parents seem to exist only as objects of ridicule, it’s refreshing to see a teenager who actually wants to bond with her dad. Things such as music, shopping and sugary breakfast cereal become points of connection, not division.
Daphne’s mom, Libby, regrets her separation from Henry. Though she feels betrayed by his supposed abandonment, the film implies that she has remained emotionally and sexually faithful to her husband. Noble Henry espouses a number of noteworthy qualities. [Spoiler Warning] He’s honest and takes Daphne in, despite the danger this unknown daughter might pose to his political career. While his advisors are trying to put a spin on her sudden appearance, he reminds them that "we are dealing with a living, breathing person." He’s consistently trumpeted as a principled idealist. One political analyst says Henry’s best selling point as a candidate "is that he’s completely scandal free." Henry wrestles with those principles, resisting those who would try to push him toward a more pragmatic path. He shows genuine concern for his daughter’s well-being when he thinks she’s in a romantically compromising situation (she actually isn’t).
Other worthy messages include the negative consequences of dishonesty, the need for chivalry in romantic relationships, the toll "keeping up appearances" can take on a family, the ridiculousness of cultural hierarchies, the rewards of behaving kindly and graciously to others, the foolishness of hypocrisy, the truth that one’s worth comes from within, the necessity of following one’s conscience and the absurdity of conforming to needlessly restrictive social traditions. The permanence of marriage is upheld.
spiritual content: While telling the story about her pregnancy, Libby states that fate had given her a beautiful little girl. Upon first learning of Daphne’s abrupt appearance, Henry’s fiancée, Glynnis, says he should thoroughly check out the girl’s background to make sure she doesn’t have "666" written on her skull.
sexual content: Generally subtle and restrained. Much of Daphne’s wardrobe consists of clingy, low-cut affairs. Though not as slinky as other PG-rated outfits are wont to be, Daphne’s clothing can serve as an unwelcome distraction. Glynnis’ daughter, Clarissa, makes a number of biting comments about the legitimacy of Henry’s marriage. When Glynnis’ tells her to "put a cork in it," Clarissa shoots a pointed look at Henry and says, "Maybe someone should have put a cork in it 17 years ago." After Daphne meets a cute guitarist named Ian, she mentions that she lives with a musician. He’s crestfallen until she states that the musician is her mother. Henry tells Daphne that a dog ate one annoying politician’s testicle, but that the man is unfortunately still reproducing. At a formal gala Daphne asks her mom if she’s wearing a bra. One high ranking official fondly recalls "feverish kissing in the cloakroom." A lecherous suitor squeezes women’s rears and ogles Daphne (she shoves him into a lake for his efforts). In an attempt to get rid of Daphne, Glynnis tries to convince Henry that the Bedouin marriage ceremony was only a "mating ritual." Daphne and Ian share a kiss, as do Henry and Libby.
violent content: Predominately slapstick. Libby falls down a hill in Morocco before bumping (quite literally) into Henry. Daphne takes a tumble while climbing a high wall. While shooting clay pigeons, a poor shot decapitates a statue, blasts a birdhouse and blows a tree branch out from under a cat (the feline is unharmed). When Daphne gives the sport a try, the recoil of the shotgun knocks her flat on her back. A fed-up butler "accidentally" pours hot water on a sharp-tongued Clarissa. An amped-up rendition of James Brown’s "Get Up Off of That Thing" causes a chandelier to crash to the ground. When Henry learns that the devious Alistair was aware of Libby’s pregnancy all along, he decks him.
crude or profane language: One mild profanity ("a--"). The Lord’s name is misused half-a-dozen times. One character says "bejesus." Other words and phrases such as "shut up," "the old bat," "bloody," "holy poo on toast," "arrogant jerk" and "fart" appear.
drug and alcohol content: Henry and Glynnis drink occasionally. Various partygoers also imbibe. While waitressing, Daphne coaxes an overindulged wedding guest out from under a table by slipping ice down his back. The camera glimpses people smoking on the street.
other negative elements: Though the film treats it rather lightly, the fact that the 17-year-old Daphne runs off to England without her mother’s approval in order to "write her own story" is anything but sensible. Reckless and foolhardy might be better descriptors. Clarissa makes a number of sarcastic quips about Americans. Daphne makes a few exasperated but venom-less comments. She tells a slimy lecher that "I really wish you’d pull your lip over your head and swallow it" and calls Clarissa "snotty little miss cranky pants" when she tries to bully her into returning to America.
conclusion: Good-hearted films with happy endings are notoriously hard to pull off. They’re either so cloyingly saccharine as to become almost unwatchable. Or they indulge in a bit too much cynicism, hoping to please pessimistic critics. Fortunately, What a Girl Wants fits neither of these stereotypes. It’s sweet without being treacly. Its characters are engaging, but reasonably realistic. And while most viewers will have the entire plot nailed within the first five minutes (just as they did when The Princess Diaries first arrived in theaters), the director and cast make it so much fun that you won’t likely care. I certainly didn’t. "This [movie] has such heart," says actress Kelly Preston (Libby). "It’s got such a great tenderness and such a great message." She’s right on all counts. The film delivers wonderful pro-family themes about marital fidelity, the need for intact homes and the foolishness of social posturing. There are some bumpy spots, no doubt, but during a time when cinema is getting rougher and rougher, What a Girl Wants provides an invigoratingly smooth ride.