She’s basically teaching the girls, you don’t need to chain stores… You don’t have to spend tons of money to buy the same labels everyone else is wearing.
— Elizabeth Allen, commentary, Aquamarine
Oh no, I’m not mad. Surprised definitely, and confused about a couple of things, like, for one, the fact that you have a tail.
— Raymond (Jake McDorman)
“Basically, we only flew in five actors from the United States,” says director Elizabeth Allen. She and producer Susan Cartsonis are watching most of these five as they confront one another on a sunny beach in Queensland, Australia, here posing as Tampa, Florida. Not only did they have to find cars outfitted to drive on the right side of the road and deal with rainy days, but they also had to cast local actors for supporting roles who could do American accents.
As it turns out, their movie, Aquamarine, doesn’t suffer for such inconveniences. It’s actually one of the more engaging bright and bouncy girls’ flicks you’ll see, in part because its two stars — Emma Roberts (as Claire) and Joanna “JoJo” Levesque (as Hailey) — are suitably adorable, and in part because their storylines are suitably 13-ish. That is, they’re not designed as short adults, on some fast track to sexual knowledge or worldly cynicism. Tough they do ogle boys and imagine dreamy “dates,” they’re clearly kids: curious, melodramatic, and smart, sometimes overstimulated and way too influenced by the media culture all around them.
The movie opens on the girls’ immediate problem. Their longtime friendship is about to be broken up by the fact that Hailey’s marine biologist mom is moving them to (of all places) Australia. As they contemplate this sad near future on yet another afternoon at the Capri Beach Club (managed by Claire’s grandparents), they also ponder how best to get the attention of beautiful lifeguard Raymond (Jake McDorman, whom Allen says has a “sort of self-deprecating quality,” which made him seem “dorky and accessible”). They consult magazines to decipher proper romantic “techniques,” but are regularly shot down by the local mean girl, Cecilia (Arielle Kebbel), who sashays across the beach in her bikini, attended by her equally skinny minions. Planting herself before Raymond, she smiles and shows off her long tanned torso, while he succumbs — at least according to the “signs” listed by Hailey and Emma’s teen mags: he flexes his pecs and shakes his hair, all in slow motion of course, and much to Hailey and Claire’s horror.
But even as this grim-seeming summer stretches before them, the girls come upon a brilliant mood changer, namely, a mermaid who washes up into the beach club swimming pool. Her appearance follows a stormy night, which has the girls trying out magic chants in hopes of changing their immediate future, while thunder and lighting crash outside. Allen, who often sounds like an enthusiastic teenager herself, recalls the shoot:
Now, a lot of times when I was working with the actresses, I liked to sort of surprise them with things, and in this case, I hid and had someone else call ‘Action,’ and I jumped out from behind the couch with my megaphone and screamed at them. And they jumped, like a mile. They thought it was really funny. But we got great reactions as you can see, for the on-screen performances.
She’s right: JoJo and Roberts do shriek and look scared. (If you flip the DVD over, you can hear the girls’ comments on selected scenes, including this one; Roberts confirms Allen’s read: “I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared my whole entire life! Literally, I screamed. And then I started laughing.” Suffice it to say that the girls’ commentary is sweet and cute and suggests that kids see their work in ways that intersect with adults’ views only occasionally.)
The next morning, when Hailey and Claire find Aquamarine (Sara Paxton), they’re scared again. It’s not every day you stumble — quite literally in Claire’s case — on a girl with a tail and scales. After an initial scamper-away, the girls return to the pool at night, for the scene everyone on the commentary tracks calls “the dreaded Scene 35,” mainly because it took weeks to shoot, owing to the fact that the 14-year-old stars had to be off set by 10pm every night. This left them only a couple of hours of darkness to shoot each day (and, as JoJo notes, “It was freezing!”, not to mention the fact that affixing Paxton’s tail each day “took about two hours!”).
Incredibly and typically in such fanciful girly fare, Aqua happens to want to change her own future: her father, the king of the sea, has arranged a marriage for her and she’s run away to avoid it. The storm was a sign of his upset, and she cuts a deal with him (she speaks to him on a “shell phone,” one of those big pinkish shells that lets you hear the ocean, and he remains off screen, though you can only imagine he’s both alarming and splendiferous). If she can find proof of “true love” in three days, her father will cancel the wedding.
The potential sticking point comes when Aqua decides the boy from whom she must extract a declaration of love is none other than Raymond. Still, the girls agree to help her achieve her end, and in return she’ll grant them a wish. “What would you wish for if you met a mermaid?” asks Roberts. When JoJo says she’d ask for another wish, Roberts exclaims, “You can’t wish for another wish! That’s like the number one rule!” They agree they’d wish to be princesses, along with their friends, so everyone could wear crowns and drive around in pink cars. Again, the girls display a logic and charisma that are hard to categorize.
Determined to prove the existence of love (and so, avoid her father’s plan), Aquamarine pursues Raymond, the very pretty lifeguard on whom Hailey has a crush. The girls and mermaid cut a deal: if, in three days, Aqua can get Ray to say he loves her, she’ll avoid the wedding and grant the girls a wish. And so begins the courting of Raymond, who is properly bedazzled by the gorgeous Aqua but really, he’s a mortal boy, and so “true love” is a concept rather beyond him. The girls help him along his emotional journey, learn something about themselves and their bodies, and resist the model of “popularity” embodied by petty-and-melodramatic Cecilia. (The DVD includes six semi-explanatory feaurettes focused on just such concerns, each running five or six minutes, that pretty much offer what their titles suggest: “Awesome Auditions,” “Mermaid Makeover,” “It’s All About the Fashion,” and “Aqua Squeal,” in which Paxton demonstrates more than once the dolphin-inspired noise she makes.)
Here’s what this movie does very, very well. Not only does it skillfully negotiate differences between boys and girls of a certain age; it also respects bonds between girls, framing this threeway friendship as more engaging than any summertime movie romance. While the girl characters surely carry this point, it’s helped along by cheerful jokes about Raymond’s objectification. Allen observes, “Like 15, 20 years ago, there were a lot of films where they’d do that with women, and we’re sort of turning the tables on that. It’s slightly subversively feminist.” Enough to make it quite unlike too many movies aimed at tweens (see: Sleepover, A Cinderella Story), Aquamarine does not adhere to the primitive “marriage plot” adapted for girls from adult-focused romances. Instead, it grants these lovely girls room for growing.
That’s not to say Aquamarine isn’t sometimes silly. It uses mermaid rules from the boy-oriented Splash (Aqua can grow legs during the day, but her fishtail comes back at sundown or if her legs get wet), in order to set up absurd situations (as Aqua and Ray are flirting, she has to run away as soon as the sun turns orange). (Allen and the girls note in their commentaries the moments when Aqua develops legs and a butt, and also the points in the movie where Paxton’s breasts had to be carefully taped under her blond-and-blue hair or obstructed by objects on screen, while still hinted at enough to show she’s a mermaid, not self-conscious about her nakedness.
At the same time, Aqua’s “otherness” is needlessly marked by her naïve childishness, combined with physical oddities (fingernails that change color to show her emotions, starfish worn as earrings that whisper to her that she’s “smart” and “beautiful” when she needs an emotional pick-me-up), and a sensual maturity (Ray is smitten as soon as he sees her, though repeatedly perplexed by her strange behavior). And yes, the film leans too heavily on the villainy of Cecilia to create “tension” (she competes for Ray’s attention by lying and cheating).
Still, Aqua is not so charming as the human girls, especially Roberts as Claire, who is convincing as well as lovely. Despite the narrative awkwardness and abuses heaped on Cecilia, Aquamarine is full of nice little surprises. Watching the girls’ looks of disbelief and delight as they discover the magic of the starfish earrings, Allen says she came up with this bit because “I felt like we needed a little more fantasy fulfillment, fantasy elements that any young girl who found a mermaid would want to experience.” Exactly.