"What a Girl Wants" may be a modern-dress version of the frothy 1958 romantic comedy "The Reluctant Debutante," but it feels much more like a shameless reshuffle of "The Princess Diaries." This squirm-inducing catalog of Yank/Brit differences, which spins on the way a vivacious 17-year-old New York City girl loosens up her newly met, broom-up-his-bum upper-class British dad, no doubt will score with the sizable target aud of female teens, drawn by Amanda Bynes, star of Nickelodeon's "All That" and "The Amanda Show," as well as "Big Fat Liar."

“What a Girl Wants” may be a modern-dress version of the frothy 1958 romantic comedy “The Reluctant Debutante,” but it feels much more like a shameless reshuffle of “The Princess Diaries.” This squirm-inducing catalog of Yank/Brit differences, which spins on the way a vivacious 17-year-old New York City girl loosens up her newly met, broom-up-his-bum upper-class British dad, no doubt will score with the sizable target aud of female teens, drawn by Amanda Bynes, star of Nickelodeon’s “All That” and “The Amanda Show,” as well as “Big Fat Liar.” All others will have their teeth set on edge.

Pic’s title serves as fair warning that every element of the script by Jenny Bicks (a “Sex in the City” regular) and Elizabeth Chandler (“Someone Like You”) is set up to inspire and quickly satisfy the desires of adolescent girls. It’s a fairy tale, to be sure, but one in which everything comes so easily — and all plot strand resolutions are so thoroughly visible from the beginning — that there’s no chance to build up any genuine longing for dreams to come true. It’s fantasy time for the instant-gratification generation.

The brunette, somewhat puffy-faced Bynes plays Daphne Reynolds, who’s grown up in Gotham’s Chinatown with still-bohemian mom Libby (Kelly Preston). Latter has long regaled Daphne with tales of her dashingly romantic dad, Henry Dashwood (Colin Firth), whom Libby met while traipsing around Morocco but with whom things just couldn’t work out long-term.

Without telling her mother where she’s going, Daphne impulsively sets off for London, which gets the travelogue treatment to the accompaniment of the Clash’s “London Calling” and where Daphne immediately meets cute young musician Ian (Oliver James). Meanwhile, Dashwood has removed all the dash from his personality to become Lord Henry, perpetuator of his ancient family’s name, a current candidate for Parliament and, in the view of his longtime adviser (Jonathan Pryce), a sure-thing prime minister.

When Daphne climbs the wall of the Dashwood estate and presents herself to Henry as the daughter he never knew he had, he can barely speak. Things don’t get much better for Firth as the picture progresses, which means his character here is even more clenched and constipated than the solicitor he played in “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”

Expressing their discombobulation at the news of Henry’s fatherhood in more demonstrative ways are his conniving fiancee Glynnis (Amanda Chancellor), for whom every move is a political decision, and her snobbish daughter Clarissa (Christina Cole), who comes off like the sourest possible version of Reese Witherspoon’s character in “Election.” As if born to be evil stepmother and stepsister, the women do all they can to rid themselves of this potential scandal producer and rival for Henry’s affections, but Daphne’s winning New World ways keep jolting to life a society otherwise shown as teetering on the white cliffs of calcification.

Pic’s midsection is taken up with a succession of high-society events at which Daphne makes a spectacle of herself by puncturing all vestiges of propriety. She doesn’t really mean to, but she just can’t help herself when she dresses way down at the Royal Dress Show (with Prince Charles in attendance), sets off a musical outburst that makes a priceless chandelier crash at a formal ball, pushes Clarissa’s would-be b.f. into the water at a regatta, endangers Henry’s political prospects by inducing him to expose his old motorcycle-riding, leather-pants-wearing rock ‘n’ roll self and walks out of her own “coming-out” party just as the Queen herself is arriving.

From anything but a teen wish-fulfillment p.o.v., story doesn’t convince for a moment because the differences between Daphne and the society she’s visiting are so artificial. Despite the wayward hijinx the scripters desperately concoct for her, Daphne is an unusually composed and presentable 17-year-old, hardly the stuff of anyone’s worst nightmares. At the same time, the English upper crust here behaves as if the last 50 years hadn’t happened, so flustered is everyone by even the slightest breach of decorum.

Given the programmatic writing and cut-and-paste direction of Dennie Gordon, over whose debut film, the unforgettable “Joe Dirt,” this must in all candor be judged a slight improvement, one can only be grateful for the small favor of Bynes. Not exactly a beauty nor a conveyor of character depth, she nonetheless displays an ease before the camera that is disarming and suggests a maturity beyond her years. She alone makes pic watchable to the extent that it is.

Chancellor (“Duckface” in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) makes an easily hissable villainess, while Eileen Atkins sallies forth bravely as Henry’s mother and Daphne’s secret ally in the household. Sylvia Syms turns up briefly as a grande dame with an eccentric little dog.

Extensive use is made of London and surrounding locations, while soundtrack collection of more than two dozen pop tunes is as predictable as the story.

What a Girl Wants

Production

A Warner Bros. release presented in association with Gaylord Films of a Di Novi Pictures/Gerber Pictures production. Produced by Denise Di Novi, Bill Gerber, Hunt Lowry. Executive producers, E.K. Gaylord II, Alison Greenspan, Casey La Scala. Co-producer, Steven Harding. Directed by Dennie Gordon. Screenplay, Jenny Bicks, Elizabeth Chandler, based on the screenplay and play "The Reluctant Debutante" by William Douglas Home.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Andrew Dunn; editor, Charles McClelland; music, Rupert Gregson-Williams; music supervisor, Debra A. Baum; production designer, Michael Carlin; art director, Karen Wakefield; set decorator, Rebecca Alleway; costume designer, Shay Cunliffe; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Colin Charles, Brian Simmons; supervising sound editor, Matt Grime; assistant directors, Michael Murray, Richard Styles; casting, Suzanne Crowley, Gilly Poole. Reviewed at Todd-AO West, Santa Monica, March 25, 2003. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Daphne Reynolds - Amanda Bynes Henry Dashwood - Colin Firth Libby Reynolds - Kelly Preston Jocelyn Dashwood - Eileen Atkins Glynnis Payne - Anna Chancellor Alistair Payne - Jonathan Pryce Ian Wallace - Oliver James Clarissa Payne - Christina Cole Princess Charlotte - Sylvia Syms Armistead Stuart - Ben Scholfield
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