What do little girls want? If we are to follow the emotional heart of Aquamarine, a new film about two 13-year-olds who help a runaway mermaid fall in love, the answer is . . . bling.
Hailey (Joanna "JoJo" Levesque, pretty much a Lindsay Lohan ringer) and Claire (Emma Roberts) are best friends in a small beach community. It's the end of summer, and Hailey's set to move to Australia in a few days with her marine-biologist mother. Bruised by her father's desertion, Hailey spends her days with orphaned Claire, who lives at her grandparents' hotel. Hailey's bitter and Claire's afraid of the water . . . no wonder they're friends? Viewers are left to puzzle out this potentially touching backstory on their own, however, as director Elizabeth Allen hustles raggedly through her exposition, using quick zooms, flash-cuts, and speeded-up motion in lieu of exploring the girls' actual relationship. Their lifelong companionship is thus presented as a given, rather than demonstrated by any casual, relaxed scenes of the two hanging out. The girls also come across as too grounded and sane to be as boy crazy as the plot demands: Claire, in particular, seems more likely to be finishing up her local library's summer reading program than charting the every move of the girls' obtuse object of desire, beach-boy Ray (Jake McDorman).
Then one night, a storm washes a mermaid (Sara Paxton, a Heather Graham/Jessica Simpson knockoff) into the hotel swimming pool, and she hits it off with the girls. Aquamarine, as the half-human is called, telegraphs wide-eyed vacuity, and though she displays a few moments of comic inspiration while swinging her long blond hair (and long scaly tail), the film isn't particularly interested in her fish-out-of-water tale until very late in its going.
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In the great tradition of Claudette Colbert (in It Happened One Night, 1934) via the watered-down Julia Roberts vehicle of 1999, this even more watery narrative gives us an Aquamarine who's a runaway bride defying her father's wishes. Determined to prove to her dad that true love exists (mer-people believing as they do in arranged marriages), Aqua decides to win Ray's love in the three days she has on land. In exchange for a favor involving their future, the girls agree to help, and soon the proceedings devolve into Mean Girls meets Splash, as Hailey's archrival, Cecilia (Arielle Kebbel), who also wants Ray, determines to expose Aqua's secret.
An adaptation of Alice Hoffman's juvenile novel, Aquamarine comes off as a ragbag of other people's inspirations. Director Allen includes a couple of cute gags and a few nice surprises (the talking starfish earrings are a particularly nice touch). There are glimpses of what Hailey will be missing in her interactions with community life, but overall the film's depiction of an American seaside is as evocative as a visit to Wal-Mart's swimsuit display. The leads have a natural charm not squashed by the filmmakers, and while "JoJo" Levesque has figured in an Eminem song in her other career as a pop singer, neither Hailey nor Claire is sexualized in this movie. Arielle Kebbel, who is sexualized, hits every mark as the comically nasty rival Cecilia, putting her in line to replace Rachel McAdams and Anna Faris in these sorts of roles. Jake McDorman, the film's real discovery, displays an ease and a charm in front of the camera that eclipses that of the rest of the cast.
Aquamarine will likely please its undemanding tween audience -- especially if today's kids are as unsavvy a crew as 20th Century Fox seems to think. But the movie ultimately is divided against itself; it finds its strength in a genuinely nice finale built on the girls' bond, but the plot insists that our heroes care for handsome Ray enough to follow him around, annotating his every move. They consult a stack of teen-girl magazines in search of romantic advice for Aqua, followed by a shopping-mall montage in which they burn through all of Hailey's savings in exchange for a makeover for each of them. Growing up, the film seems to say, means becoming a bubbleheaded consumer.
"Just be yourself -- minus the tail" is Hailey's advice to her mermaid friend. Might as well be telling your tween viewers to be themselves, minus their defining characteristics. In this way, consider Aquamarine a mer-movie: It's half-humane and half-fishy.