It's tough for a teenage actress in Hollywood these days. There are only so many roles to pick from, most leaning toward the sullen, lovesick type, subservient to men and dripping with self-doubt. There's also the snotty, self-centered ghoul, patterned off the lives and loves of Paris Hilton. Emma Roberts plays somewhere near the latter with the English comedy "Wild Child," but digs into the role with unsettling venom, revealing a certain dark spark that might be useful once she exits teendom and tries her hand at more adult-minded cinema. A slight but tart teen comedy, "Wild Child" carries some surprising bite, subverting the norm with a fine British cast helping to sell the pixy stick fantasy, buttressed by Roberts's refreshing angry streak.
Not to get too carried away, "Wild Child" is certainly a formulaic teen diversion, scripted with a distinct absence of imagination by Lucy Dahl (daughter of Roald). Following a rigid outline of distaste and disgrace, Dahl imagines Poppy's English adventure as a chance to run through the basics of tween cinema, including the time-tested hurdles of boys, fashion, and cliques to use as challenges for our heroine as she battles her bitter fish-out-of-water dilemma.
The screenplay is primitive, but first-time director Nick Moore throws a knuckleball executing the material. There's a slight edge to the early going of the film that's amusing, imagining Poppy not only as a brat, but a brat with some rage issues, brought on by her L.A. privilege and the lasting wounds caused by the premature loss of her mother. Moore turns Poppy into a rather prickly pear, instead of an average depiction of snobbery. It's an interesting performance from the young star, enjoying the benefits of a large, gifted British ensemble, marked by frothy appearances from the likes of Nick Frost and Shirley Henderson. The group effort is valued, but Roberts makes for a compelling lead, especially when she lets loose with a smattering of curses and snarls. I've never seen this side of the actress before. The ugliness suits her.
"Wild Child" burns through a routine of cute boys, fitting room fashions shows, dance-offs, and sporting empowerment (Poppy leads the lacrosse team to unforeseen heights). It's predictable but rarely boring, at least for the first hour, which trucks along with an enjoyable energy. Once Moore and Dahl demand a villain appear to help Poppy properly vault her third-act worries, "Wild Child" arranges a dreary arson subplot that's both strained and useless, following tedious teen cinema blueprints that snuff out the fun. The big game finale restores the vigor, but also scarfs down cliché too hungrily.
The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio) presentation on the "Wild Child" DVD is perhaps best with the drab English colors, capturing the oppressive mood that panics Poppy. Skintones are pushed too pink, but a majority of the locations and costumes feel natural, with brisk exteriors the most compelling. EE issues are present throughout, but rarely distract, and black levels are acceptable.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is quite vivid, with the film's blaring pop soundtrack coming around every 10 minutes to snap the viewer to attention. The sonic boost is awkwardly handled, but a minor concern. The rest of the track flows smoothly, keeping conversations discernable, while lacrosse antics fill out the surrounds, along with pleasing school hall atmospherics. French and Spanish 5.1 tracks are also offered.
English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are included.
A feature-length audio commentary with director Nick Moore and Lucy Dahl is comfortably informative, with the duo expanding on the origins of the screenplay (based on Dahl's real life experiences at boarding school) and how they restored the English feel to the writing. There are plenty of technical details and actor anecdotes to enjoy, but too much of the track dissolves into "everything was great!" talk that tires quickly. The pair share terrific chemistry, but the commentary is ideal for fans only.
"Deleted Scenes" (20:29) offer an alternate opening, an unfinished party invite montage (with original audio included to make it all the more bizarre), more house party scenes (wisely cut to get Poppy to England faster), an extended schoolroom sequence, and various scenes of Abbey Mount bonding.
"The Making of 'Wild Child'" (11:35) is the BTS featurette, with cast and crew interviews extolling the virtues of the production. At the very least, it's spirited conversation, with generous on-set footage of the professionals at play.
"Head Girl Tour" (1:58) greets Georgia King in character as Harriet, taking a camera around for a tour of Abbey Mount.
"Lacrosse" (3:58) shows the cast practicing the game of choice for "Wild Child," underlining their inability, which grew to a tentative expertise by the time cameras rolled.
"Ghostville" (2:08) heads into the bowels of the Abbey Mount location, which is rumored to be haunted. Roberts and Pettyfer lead the way, hoping to uncover something unholy. Mostly, they giggle.
"School Memories" (3:00) interviews the female cast for their educational background and greatest academic humiliations.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
"Wild Child" is trivial but passable, coasting on a fine layer of appealing thespian charm and a frisky tone of irritability that one doesn't see enough from this genre.