There's a whiff of aged aquatic life about the fish-out-of-water tale "Wild Child," but that still won't stop Working Title's junior romantic comedy from smelling as sweet as sugar cookies to its tween target aud. Competent if mechanical helming debut by editor Nick Moore, who's cut many of the shingle's best-known hits (including "Love, Actually"), features upcoming starlet Emma Roberts ("Nancy Drew") as a Malibu brat who's shipped off to an English boarding school. "Wild Child," which bowed domestically Aug. 15, ought to claw out decent B.O. figures from young femmes who don't fancy the Olympics or another male-skewed blockbuster.

There’s a whiff of aged aquatic life about the fish-out-of-water tale “Wild Child,” but that still won’t stop Working Title’s junior romantic comedy from smelling as sweet as sugar cookies to its tween target aud. Competent if mechanical helming debut by editor Nick Moore, who’s cut many of the shingle’s best-known hits (including “Love, Actually”), features upcoming starlet Emma Roberts (“Nancy Drew”) as a Malibu brat who’s shipped off to an English boarding school. “Wild Child,” which bowed domestically Aug. 15, ought to claw out decent B.O. figures from young femmes who don’t fancy the Olympics or another male-skewed blockbuster.

When popular high school princess Poppy (Roberts) infuriates her father (Aiden Quinn) by pulling a stunt that goes too far, he packs her off to British boarding school Abbey Mount. Run with a firm but fair hand by headmistress Mrs. Kingsley (Natasha Richardson), Poppy’s new alma mater has a strict uniform code that — much to her chagrin — doesn’t encompass Jimmy Choo stilettos. A rigid social hierarchy that places Americans at the bottom of the pecking order, below vermin, is enforced by stuck-up head girl Harriet (Georgia King).

Eventually, Poppy learns a little humility and befriends her four dormmates, who agree to help get her expelled so she can return home to California. Cue an assortment of relatively harmless pranks, followed by dressing-up montages backed by an anodyne pop soundtrack. Love interest is provided by Mrs. Kingsley’s hunky son, Freddie (Alex Pettyfer, “Stormbreaker”), who’s a bit of a ringer for Prince William but with lusher locks.

Script credited to Lucy Dahl (daughter of author Roald Dahl) puts more emphasis on character development and plot mechanics than the recent, slapstick-laden, girls’-school-set “St. Trinian’s,” and still manages to have funnier one-liners (not a hard feat). Pic’s third-act endorsement of female friendship turns out to be surprisingly affecting, despite obvious sentimentality.

Roberts has good chemistry with Pettyfer, and projects a fine mixture of sass, smarts and sweetness, although this may not be enough to make pic a crossover success Stateside, except as a cult ancillary item. The grown-up thesps aren’t used to the best of their abilities, especially Shirley Henderson and Daisy Donovan. (Latter, a comic respected for her edgy work in Britain, was reportedly one of pic’s original co-screenwriters, but isn’t credited as such here.) However, casting agents should take note of some of pic’s younger femmes, particularly ingenue Kimberley Nixon (who plays Poppy’s new best friend, Kate) and strong-featured King.

Tech credits are serviceable, although the opening sequence seems truncated, and elsewhere editing (which one would think would be helmer Moore’s forte) feels choppy, suggesting last-minute excisions after preview testing.

Wild Child

U.K.

Production

A Universal (in U.K.) release of a Universal Pictures presentation, in association with StudioCanal, of a Working Title production. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Diana Phillips. Executive producers, Liza Chasin, Debra Hayward. Directed by Nick Moore. Screenplay, Lucy Dahl.

Crew

Camera (color), Chris Seager; editor, Simon Cozens; music, Michael Price; production designer, Eve Stewart; art director, David Kindle; costume designer, Julia Caston; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), John Midgley; supervising sound editor, Ian Wilson. Reviewed at Vue Norwich, Norfolk, U.K., Aug. 15, 2008. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Emma Roberts, Natasha Richardson, Shirley Henderson, Alex Pettyfer, Aiden Quinn, Kimberley Nixon, Georgia King, Juno Temple, Sophie Wu, Linzey Cocker, Daisy Donovan, Nick Frost.

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