The Babysitter’s Club meets The Little Mermaid in Elizabeth Allen’s adaptation of Alice Hoffman’s Aquamarine. Best gal pals Claire (Emma Roberts) and Hailey (JoJo) are on the brink of being separated by Hailey’s Australia-bound marine biologist mother, but when the titular mermaid (Sara Paxton, a Mena Suvari-ish ditz with boob-coveringly long hair) washes ashore and speaks of finding love and her ability to grant wishes, the girls see a way out of a seemingly no-win situation: get the Capri Club’s lifeguard, Raymond (Jake McDorman), to fall in love with Aquamarine and Hailey gets to stay in Florida. There’s no reason the film should work given how openly it traffics in the clichés of those tweener rom-coms any adult except for Merv the Perv has come to loathe ever since Hilary Duff decided to slip out of her Disney Channel slippers, but Allen and screenwriters Jessica Bendinger and John Quaintance take pains to differentiate their film from junk like Sleepover by treating the tween experience with cartoon affection. Because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, Aquamarine actually demands your attention.
Fantastical as it may be, Claire and Hailey’s world still feels credibly insular. They run away from the film’s seemingly peripheral but threatening adults in the same way a small creature might dart away from the sound of human fingers tapping against a cage or fishbowl. There’s a bubbly and effervescent energy at work here: The surface of the film suggests the walls of a Barbie Dream House and many of the characters are reminiscent of dolls whose cords you have to pull in order to get them to say something. “Hail, did you order a sandwitch?” asks Claire as sharky mean-girl Cecilia (Arielle Kebbel, in the Eugene Levy role—fans of Splash will know what I’m talking about here) steps onto the sand near their beach club. (That JoJo and Kebbel look like bootleg versions of Lindsay Lohan and Scarlett Johansson, respectively, should get the lecherous, celebrity-mongering PerezHilton crowd worked-up.) The dialogue is corny, yes, and there are way too many fish metaphors, but the lines have the whiff of authenticity in spots. When Claire learns that Aquamarine can grant wishes, she casually asks, “Can you make boobs come out of hiding?” The line registers immediately as comedy, but a deeper scan—in light of the softness with which it’s pitched and easily understood—reveals familiar feelings of inadequacy and frustration that trouble young girls.
Aquamarine isn’t perfect. The attention the girls in the film pay Raymond is so effusive it becomes creepy—are 13-year-olds really this horny?—and a throwaway line about Raymond being so cute even boys want him is a needlessly lame way of flaunting Claire and Hailey’s progressivism. The film’s pinky, vibrant aesthetic is also in-and-out, and the script doesn’t go far enough to differentiate Aquamarine’s world from that of her new friends. As such, holes pop up all over the script so big a dolphin could jump through them. In Aquamarine’s world, “barnacle” replaces “bitch” as an expletive and “walking down the aisle” becomes “swimming down the aisle,” but why doesn’t she know what “hot”—as in “that boy is hot”—means, or how does she know what “love” is if there is really no basis for the word where she’s from? But sweet, inventive little touches like the talking starfishes Aquamarine uses for earrings work to patch in such lazy potholes. As for film’s quaintly surprising finale, don’t expect the self-absorbed satisfaction the Duffster contrives for herself in all her films. This one is a reminder that the insanity of the tween experience is something that’s best left behind.