Grade: C

Mermaids aren’t exactly rarities on film; one need only think of Darryl Hannah and Disney’s animated musical, just for a start. But after experiencing “Aquamarine” one begins to feel that overuse has definitely set in. Watching this prepubescent variant on “Splash” is like being trapped in a live-action issue of “Teen Beat” for ninety minutes. By the time you work your way through all the adolescent giggles, puppy-love infatuations, catty-girl shenanigans, beach beefcake and best-friend traumas (not to mention the obligatory fish-tail gags and aquatic effects), you may feel as exhausted as a parent who’s had to accompany his twelve-year old daughter for an afternoon at the mall with her friends.

The focus of the script, based on a novel by Alice Hoffman, is on pals Claire (Emma Roberts) and Hailey (Joanna “JoJo” Levesque), a couple of thirteen-year old girls enjoying the end of summer in their Florida beach town by ogling handsome nice-kid lifeguard Ray (Jake McDorman), who’s employed by Hailey’s grandparents and pursued by Cecilia (Arielle Kebbel), the local rich bitch. All is not well, however, since Hailey is about to move–quite unwillingly–to Australia with her single mother, and Claire, traumatized by her parents’ death in a boating accident, is terrified of the water. Things change magically when a storm washes mermaid Aquamarine (Sara Paxton) ashore and the girls befriend her–especially after they learn that helping her may result in their earning a wish (that Hailey be allowed to stay in America). Aqua, it turns out, has fled an arranged marriage and is hoping to find love with a human to prove to her father that a wedding without it should not occur. She falls at first sight for Ray, and the girls put aside their own longings for the dreamboat to get them together in spite of Cecilia’s obstinate machinations. Ray, of course, is also smitten with her, and the two enjoy some time together–though it’s limited by the fact that the rules allow Aqua to replace her tail with legs only during daylight hours, and can’t get them wet. There are multiple complications, of course, and to its credit, “Aquamarine” doesn’t follow rote formula at the end: though the shrewish bad girl gets the obligatory comeuppance, the other plot threads are tied up in ways that go a bit off the beaten path. Rest assured, though, that they all teach “valuable lessons.” Unfortunately, none of them seem earned by the silliness that’s preceded them.

Within the confines of the material, the cast is attractive. Paxton’s Aqua is rather bubble-headed and dim-witted, but those are the dictates of the script, and Roberts and Levesque are too often required to play the absurdly love-struck adolescents; but all three add some charm to the mix, too, with Paxton’s proto-Hannah dippiness complementing Robert’s combination of gawkiness and subdued prettiness (similar to that of her aunt, Julia) and Levesque’s more brusque manner. McDorman brings a nice element of boyishness to the hunky (if a bit lunk-headed) object of everyone’s attention, and Kebbel has some of the pouty insouciance of the young Molly Ringwald as Cecilia. The surrounding adult cast is good too, with Bruce Spence standing out as an initially sinister but ultimately likable caretaker. Unhappily, first-time director Elizabeth Allen’s touch often seems insecure; her habit of resorting all too frequently to speeded-up music-video montages on the one hand (many of which have a materialistic edge that doesn’t jibe with the messages the picture ultimately wants to spread) and slow-motion interruptions on the other is particularly irksome. The production design and cinematography are also somewhat hard on the eye, emphasizing a color scheme that occasionally goes overboard on the garish side.

Tween girls may well find that “Aquamarine” speaks their language, and seeing it certainly won’t do them any harm–indeed, it’s to be preferred to most Lindsay Lohan/Hilary Duff movies, or Olsen Twins fluff. But parents are advised that it might be in their best interest to head off to a separate auditorium while their daughters go to see it, and that the girls’ brothers would certainly be happier elsewhere. Of course, slumber parties may once again be the perfect venue. Just wait a few months for the DVD.

And if you’d like to try a better movie along similar lines (though minus the fins), search out George Roy Hill’s “The World of Henry Orient” frm 1964. There’s nary a mermaid in sight, and the object of the two girls’ desire is an overweening concert pianist (Peter Sellers) rather than a buff swimmer, but it draws a much more honest, and ultimately far more touching, portrait of the adolescent pangs Allen is trying to capture here.