A light, occasionally charming and reasonably well-crafted tale about a transforming female friendship, “Uptown Girls” nonetheless may have a difficult time finding its niche. Pic offers scant appeal to males and is likely to fall between the cracks of the young teen and pre-teen female demographic, given that its two leads are a 22-year-old and an 8-year-old. Best prospects for recoupment are on video.
The long-in-the-works project from Manhattan-based GreeneStreet Films at least offers unusual characters. Molly Gunn (Brittany Murphy) is the orphaned daughter of a wealthy rock ‘n’ roller, a ditzy but generous free spirit — think of young Goldie Hawn crossed with Stella McCartney — who enjoys a kind of Alice in Wonderland existence in her funky, spacious New York digs, surrounded by her dad’s guitar collection and cocooned by her inheritance.
Ray Schleine (Dakota Fanning) might as well be on her own — her dad’s in a coma; and her mother, busy record executive Roma (Heather Locklear), couldn’t be less interested in mothering her. To protect her feelings, the 8-year-old has become a beastly control freak, displaying all the most brittle aspects of adulthood.
Pic meanders at the outset, following 22-year-old Molly’s adventures on the hip New York party scene and her misbegotten crush on a young troubadour (Jesse Spencer) who sings at her birthday party. But things begin to click when the unthinkable happens — the party girl loses her fortune to her thieving accountant — and is forced to find a job.
Molly accepts her misfortune with good cheer, but seems to have nothing to offer the workaday world. As a last resort, she takes an au pair position looking after the Schleine brat, arranged by a music biz friend (Donald Faison). This sets the scene for interaction between the two opposites — the adult who needs to grow up and the child who needs to relax and act like one.
Rather too suddenly, Molly overcomes her general incompetence and becomes reliable and effective as the child’s caretaker. She’s the one person Ray can’t intimidate– who sees right through her fearsome little construct.
Ultimately, there’s an appealing chemistry here, as the two femmes break through each other’s barriers and develop trust in what amounts to an unusual love story. Sequence in which Molly reveals the deep-rooted source of her own reluctance to face the world as an adult, followed by little Ray’s corresponding family crisis, is quite poignant.
Pic’s overall schematic, which starts out lightweight and contrived, manages some emotional truth before it’s over. Fluidly directed by Boaz Yakin, the confection musters additional appeal as a visually intriguing valentine to New York, with exteriors adeptly shot on location in the city and at Coney Island by Michael Ballhaus (“Gangs of New York”).
Murphy (“Just Married,” “Eight Mile”) struggles to carry the first part of the pic on her own, but once she’s paired with the remarkable Fanning (“I Am Sam”), things pick up. Still, the Ray’s hyper-intelligence and nastiness at such a young age strains believability.
Perf by Spencer, a teen idol in Australia, falls on the bland side, and Locklear is believable but one-note in a turn with small-screen scope. Costumes by Sarah Edwards are imaginative and fun, and add charm to the characters.