All Daphne Reynolds (Amanda Bynes) has ever really wanted is to meet the dad she's never known. Growing up in New York with her loving and free-spirited musician mother Libby (Kelly Preston) she makes her mom tell the story of her parents' whirlwind romance over and over. How much in love they were but how unbeknownst to him his aristocratic family drove Libby away. Now at 17 Daphne is determined to live the fantasy of the father-daughter relationship she craves. Arriving in London she finds out pop is Lord Henry Dashwood (Colin Firth) a high-profile politician who is about to marry the snooty Glynnis (Anna Chancellor). Needless to say Henry is dumbfounded to discover he has a daughter and together with his regretful mother Lady Jocelyn (Eileen Atkins) they open Dashwood manor to the spirited girl. As Daphne and Henry tentatively test their newfound relationship the teen has a hard time fitting in with stuffy British high society and soon begins to jeopardize her father's political career. She tries to suppress her bubbly personality and turn herself into a respectable debutante but Daphne soon realizes she's giving up too much of herself to be Henry's daughter. The question is will Henry realize it is he who is not made for the suffocating life he's been shoved into and reclaim his daughter and the only woman he has ever loved? Oh stop the suspense is killing us.
The 17-year-old Bynes is already a brand name in comedy--at least to the 'tween set who from the time Bynes was 10 years old have enjoyed her slapstick antics on Nickelodeon's variety show All That her own variety show The Amanda Show and her current WB sitcom What I Like About You. Bynes is all grown up now and as the cute sexy--and klutzy--Daphne she excels at performing pratfalls and infuses as much charm as she can into the character. It is clear however the young comedian has some work to do before becoming a good actress. Thank goodness she is surrounded by talented actors such as Atkins (Gosford Park) and even Preston who does a nice job as the bohemian Libby. Yet it's Firth (Bridget Jones's Diary) who truly elevates the film when on-screen and helps Bynes reach those dramatic highpoints. He has the uncanny ability to turn even the most insipid of parts into something worth watching. His best moment as Henry is when he tries on some old leather pants and dances around in his opulent bedroom pretending to be a rock star. It's very un-British of him--and it's brilliant.
To put it mildly What a Girl Wants really looks bad. TV director Dennie Gordon obviously hasn't mastered the art of filmmaking in any way because not only are many of the shots blurry and poorly lit often times it seems Bynes is shot through an entirely different softer lens than the other actors. Usually that kind of treatment is given to older actresses who want to hide all the little imperfections but for a 17-year-old cutie? Obviously it's a mistake. As well the sugar-pop theme gets out of hand trying way too hard to appeal to the hip and cool 'tweeners. To a rockin' soundtrack look how Daphne can turn a pretentious coming-out ball into a choreographed dance number! Or see how she can try on different '70s outfits and funky glasses while her father amusedly looks on! (Even Firth looks uncomfortable). Sure 11-14-year-old girls are going to love it especially the sweet love story between Daphne and a local London musician Ian (Oliver James). It's only the heart of the story--the father-daughter relationship--that keeps the film from falling into just another Teen Beat tableau.
A promising young playwright Sidda Lee Walker (Sandra Bullock) lives in New York far enough away from her Louisiana hometown. After she gives a damaging interview to Time magazine--damaging mainly to her mother Vivianne Abbott Walker (Ellen Burstyn) who doesn't take lightly to her daughter's intonations that she was not a good mother--the two women begin a feud. It threatens to destroy not only their relationship but Sidda's own plans to marry her longtime boyfriend Connor (Angus MacFadyen). Enter the Ya-Ya Sisterhood--Caro (Maggie Smith) Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan) and Necie (Shirley Knight) Vivi's lifelong best friends. To bring mother and daughter back together the women decide it's time for Sidda to learn about the Divine Secrets of their little clique--and about her mother's painful past. They tell Sidda stories about the young Vivi (Ashley Judd) who was full of promise and hope but how certain tragic events damaged her. The bond between these four older women is unshakable and the most honest element to the film. The sad news for the novel's fans however is that while the script manages to convey the true spirit of friendship it can't quite capture the magic of the book.
In a cast of many the film is chock-full of wonderful performances but it's the matured Ya-Yas who steal the show. Smith plays the tough Caro a lifelong smoker now saddled with emphysema with all the biting wit the actress is best known for while Knight plays the sweet no-nonsense Necie with just a hint of sarcasm. Flanagan the best of the three shines as the wealthy Teensy a recovering alcoholic who has faced demons herself. Her exchanges are some of the more memorable especially when after being told by an angry Vivi that she could knock Teensy into next week Teensy tells her friend "And I'll kick your ass on Thursday." Yet the film truly belongs to Burstyn and Judd as the different faces of Vivi. Burstyn is all at once the highly dramatic Southern beauty who has come to terms with (or remained steeped in denial about however you look at it) her painful past while Judd gets to show us the nitty-gritty of what actually happened to Vivi to harden her. Unfortunately the weakest member of this ensemble cast is Bullock as Sidda. She never quite convinces us she grew up in such an eccentric and terribly Southern environment. And not to leave out the men completely--James Garner plays Sidda's father Shep with quiet patience having survived life with his lady love who never loved him quite the same in return. The devoted Connor mirrors Shep but MacFadyen plays him with a lot more backbone.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise) couldn't have chosen a better film to make as her directorial debut. Sure she might be pigeonholed forever as the "chick flick" girl but she probably doesn't care much. Khouri had been approached to adapt Wells' novel a few times over the last couple of years but never had the time to do it. When the right time came along Khouri wisely decided it was also time to take on the directing chores. Even as a novice the writer/director shows us she knows her way around a camera. The film captures that Southern feel lush and languid as the moss drips down from the trees. She also knows how to handle her actors too and is able to elicit great performances (although with the likes of Burstyn and Smith this isn't hard to do). The soundtrack also is an added bonus with a variation of music from jazz to Louisiana Cajun. Yet even with all this going for it Divine Secrets misses a beat. In a novel it's great to read stories about an eccentric Southern family but to have vignettes told to you as a framework for a movie it can slow a film down. You probably won't be able to drag your husband to go see this one.