Sweet and sprightly in just the right measures, “Aquamarine” is one of the season’s pleasant surprises. The high-concept premise — two adolescent girls befriend a temporarily beached mermaid — has been fleshed out with inventive wit, unsticky warmth and more than a little wackiness. Result is an unusually likeable family-friendly comedy that could appeal far beyond its target demo of tweener femmes and net a wider audience. Looking downstream, pic likely will make an even bigger splash on homevid.
Working from a novel by Alice Hoffman (“Practical Magic”), scripters John Quaintance and Jessica Bendinger begin their fish-out-of-water scenario by introing 13-year-old best buddies Claire (Emma Roberts of Nickelodeon’s “Unfabulous”) and Hailey (Joanne “JoJo” Levesque) at summer’s end, less than a week before they will be forced to separate. Claire’s marine-biologist mom has landed a plum assignment in Australia — far, far away from their current home in a Florida coastal community where Hailey’s grandparents operate an invitingly retro beach club.
Nearly friendless except for each other, the girls literally pray for a miracle to keep them together. Fortuitously, their prayers appear to be answered when a tidal wave triggered by a sudden storm washes a mermaid into the beach club’s swimming pool.
Aquamarine (Sara Paxton of NBC’s “Darcy’s Wild Life”) is a blonde, beautiful and bubbly 18-year-old who wants to learn about the habits of surface dwellers. She’s especially eager to know about love, a state of grace that her father insists is entirely mythical.
If she can’t make Dad see love is real, Aquamarine will be forced into arranged marriage a few days hence with an unappealing merman. Hence, there’s an understandable urgency to her trolling for a desirable human who might prove her right and pledge his troth.
Much like the finny femme played so memorably by Daryl Hannah in Ron Howard’s “Splash” (1984), Aquamarine is quite capable of sprouting lovely legs to replace her scaly tail. (If she gets wet, however, or stays out past sunset, the tail returns.) But when it comes to mastering the finer points of reeling in a man, the mermaid is out at sea. Not to worry, though: Claire and Hailey are willing to share all they’ve learned about flirty behavior and feminine wiles from the pages of glossy teen-skewing magazines.
First-time feature helmer Elizabeth Allen demonstrates a light touch and savvy comic chops while smoothly steering the plot toward a beat-the-clock set-up. If Claire and Hailey can help Aquamarine woo a hunky lifeguard (Jake McDorman) — and get him to say “I love you!” — the mermaid will grant the girls a wish. Trouble is, time is of the essence. Worse, there’s an unscrupulous cutie (Arielle Kebbel) who also longs for the lifeguard.
A few early scenes in “Aquamarine” percolate a tad too insistently with the aggressive quick-cut style of music videos designed to showcase trendy pop tarts. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, pic slows its pace to allow more time for involving character development and gently amusing interaction.
Roberts and Levesque — who look like real-world 13-year-olds — develop a credible and compelling relationship with each other, particularly in scenes that touch on the orphaned Hailey’s fear of water. Just as important, they provide pitch-perfect reactions as straight women to Paxton, who’s by turns impish, anxious and ebullient as Aquamarine acclimates herself to the joys and mysteries of life on dry land.
Paxton’s impressive talent for physical comedy serves her character, and pic as a whole, very well.
A large part of pic’s charm stems from its relatively daring approach to wrapping up various plot threads in the final reel, as filmmakers take an unexpected (and wholly satisfying) turn toward something like realism. Without getting too heavy-handed with moralizing or message-mongering, filmmakers suggest that gaining maturity and self-awareness may be more important than fantasy-fulfilling happily-ever-aftering.
Supporting players — including Bruce Spence as a maintenance worker whose spookiness is more apparent than real — are first-rate across the board. Australia doubles capably for plot’s Florida setting. And speaking of trickery: The wizards of the Gold Coast-based JMB FX Studios work seamless magic while sustaining the illusion of Aquamarine’s mermaidenhood. Other standout tech contributions include Nelson Coates’ evocative production design, Brian Breheny’s handsome lensing and Sally Sharpe’s aptly colorful costumes.