How 2000s boarding school drama Wild Child became a hidden cult hit

The story of a misbehaving Malibu princess sent to an English boarding school was a box office bomb. But its release on Netflix this winter hints at a secret afterlife

December 02, 2020
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A vivacious American woman moves to Europe, where her breezy confidence and self-entitlement clashes with the haughtiness of her old-world counterparts. Her clothes, full of pastel-bright, sophisticated designer items that do not befit her youthfulness, brighten up the muted grey tones of her surroundings. She meets and falls in love with a hunky blond local, who finds her American forthrightness—unlike the humourless sceptics around her—simply captivating. 

This basic plot is restaged, now infamously, in Netflix’s Emily in Paris, a television series that sits at the improbable intersection of both “endlessly debatable” and “aggressively bland.” But late October saw another cultural artefact of the same stripe also shoot up Netflix UK’s top 10 most watched rankings: the 2008 film Wild Child.

A Hollywood teen drama about a misbehaving Malibu teen sent to boarding school in England, Wild Child debuted to low box office figures and garnered incredibly tepid, and sometimes outright vicious, reviews (“gouging one's eyeballs with a chopstick would be more fun,” ruled the Independent), many of which took umbrage with its stereotyping of both Americans—who are bratty, litigious, and rich—and the English—who are dowdy, frosty, and also rich. But the film has come to command a loyal following of twenty-somethings and, more recently, teenagers. As Assistant Editor of student publication The Tab Maddy Mussen observes, “Growing up in the 2000s meant unofficially signing a waiver where you agreed to watch Wild Child once a month for the rest of your life.” To its fans, it was a staple of sleepovers; an endless resource for quotes; a revelatory guide to life. Its release on Netflix twelve years later, in the thicket of a winter lockdown, has been met with celebration and relief

In Wild Child, it is not Paris that our protagonist shakes up but a drizzly all-girls boarding school in the English countryside. (Though Wild Child was filmed at Cobham Hall school in Kent, fans have speculated that the film is set in the north, owing to the prevalence of Northern accents in the film—a rare case of Hollywood breaking its love affair with received pronunciation.) Directed by Nick Moore, the editor of Love Actually, About a Boy, and Notting HillWild Child follows Poppy (Emma Roberts, playing totype,) a bratty 16-year-old Californian who gets sent to the school after misbehaving one too many times. “This is the final straw,” her aggrieved father yells, issuing the ultimate threat: “You are going to England!”

She arrives, scowling, at the fictional Abbey Mount school with jet black heels and a Louis Vuitton-monogrammed bag. She is introduced to the headmistress, the dedicated Mrs. Kingsley (Natasha Richardson—in the last role before her death) and begrudgingly accepts an offer of friendship from the level-headed Kate and her clique, if only for lack of better options. This crew is very much the antithesis of lofty LA glamour. The light-blonde Drippy, a comic relief-type character played by since-decorated actor Juno Temple, accidentally dyes her eyebrows dark brown in a beauty treatment gone wrong. Compare that to Poppy perched on the boarding school bed, listening to her iPod, serenely propping up glowy orbs around her face in what appears to be an advanced skincare treatment. Her friends are agog. 

Poppy spends her time at Abbey Mount trying to get expelled, enlisting Kate and her crew to help her do so. A plot twist, and avenue for character development, comes by way of Mrs. Kingsley’s off-limits son Freddie (Alex Pettyfer, a Y2K teen heartthrob), the only age-appropriate man on the premises of Abbey Mount, and, incidentally, the object of a thousand girl crushes burning with the force of 5,000 suns. Poppy and Freddie meet; she decides that by ensnaring the headmistress’s son, she’ll no doubt get kicked out. But then she begins to genuinely like him, and treasure her new English friends. If only her rival Harriet, the snotty head prefect obsessed with Pride and Prejudice, won’t stop with her own schemes to get Freddie to be Darcy to her megalomaniac Elizabeth.

Because this is a boarding school for teenage girls there are also side plots involving competitive lacrosse, as well as eagerly-anticipated school formals where boys and girls nervously cohabitate a shared space, prefiguring 2020’s social distancing. Because this is 2008 the internet, only available in a dedicated computer room, plays a critical role in the drama. 

Wild Child was written by English author Lucy Dahl (daughter of the children’s author, Roald Dahl) who based the story on two formative experiences in her life. The first was getting expelled after starting an accidental fire at the all-girl’s boarding school Abbot’s Hill in Hertfordshire when she was 15; the second raising her own teenage girls in Los Angeles, where she now lives, and remembering how “girls at that age can be so horrible to each other.” Wild Child may have been panned on release—its disappointing box office performances around the world saw it go straight-to-DVD in the US—but many teenagers appeared to be enthralled by Dahl’s exploration of casual teen cruelty, the drudgery of school, and the temporary head rush to be found in brief love affairs. Throughout my twenties, I have had more than my fair share of conversations about the film in pubs, dorm rooms, and even conference calls, the prevalence and enthusiasm of them far outstripping the film’s apparent lack of commercial and critical success. I tentatively mentioned it to a former male colleague after interviewing a candidate for a job who had come from an all-girls boarding school. “God I love that movie!” was his quick response.

“There’s something about having a story that is focused around teenage girls’ experiences that aren’t particularly pleasant,” remembers Sophie, a 28-year-old media analyst who attended all-girls school Wycombe Abbey in the 2000s, and finds, despite all the stereotypes, some humorous similarities between the film and her own experiences. “There’s one fit boy and everyone fancies him,” she said, remembering her classmates “running over to the window” to peep en masse whenever one was spotted in the wild. Wild Child became the stuff of myth among her classmates; it “became taken as lore that this was based on our experiences.”

The teen girl gossip network was also central for Laure, a translator in her late twenties who grew up in Lyon, France. Like many others, she missed the film when it came out in cinemas, but when she happened upon the film on television in 2010, “I started spreading it among my group of friends.” For teens in the UK, it arrived at a moment when many were looking to America for cultural instruction (“I think all of us just wanted to be American,” a friend observed to me). An LA coolness-guru who arrives on the outskirts of the English countryside to transform its locals literalised the Hollywood project. The British YouTuber Sean Thompson ruled in a widely-watched review last year that it’s “SOOO CHEESY BUT IN A GOOD WAY.” 

Many fans of Wild Child, when talking about the film, acknowledge this tension. Few would claim this is cinema on the scale of the greats (then again, some would) but there is something magnificent to be found in that. It is extremely common for popular cultural works targeted at teenage girls to incite contempt. For those condemned to steep in the swamp of public disgust, it often isn’t a matter of pulling oneself outside of it, but rather of finding, in this apparently reprehensible mess, some fun. For adult fans, reminiscing about these films produces a sense of comfort, bringing back fond memories of friendships stitched together by them. “My sisters, my cousins and I—five girls—have grown up watching this stuff, so we have an endless stream of silly lines from films we love. We randomly throw them in conversations and no-one else understands us,” Laure said. 

The particular appeal of Wild Child lies in its unabashed corniness and commitment to depicting an adolescent desperation—and pleasure. Viewed from the vantage point of 2020, there is something soothing in how it is not precocious ennui or self-awareness that the protagonists inch towards, but joyful self-discovery, made possible by friends who teach you to grow. (It seems not coincidental that phones are sparse in Poppy’s school—there’s no reception on the grounds, and the most stressful part of the internet is email.)

Wild Child does not have the formal slickness or aspirational coolness of Clueless or Mean Girls; nor the sweetness of another English teen film to which it was commonly, and unfavourably, compared: Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging. It tries too hard to conform to an ideal prototype—a Hollywoodised coming-of-age film—and is a shade too uncool; too cringey; too predictable. That is a fitting parable for being teen. Twenty-something straight men may have the splendid abjection of an under-aged Will from the Inbetweeners, padding about an alcohol store in a ludicrously oversized suit, muttering to the sceptical owner about being a “man who just bought a house from the local area.” Others have Kate and Drippy’s tentative walk through a local store, nervously talking about “offices,” “husbands” and how “Keith from accounts is driving me crazy” before their effort finally falls through as Drippy adds two Cadbury creme eggs to the order at the very last minute. A laboured effort to attain adulthood slowly crescendos into glorious failure, undermined by the undeniable fact that one is, still too painfully, an over-eager child. 

Reviewers may have doubted whether English teenagers would have enjoyed a film that makes them look hopelessly uncool. But acutely feeling one’s tragic inability to live up to an appropriate ideal was, for many girls, a permanent condition of adolescence. Trash is the default condition; from it, make magic. The commercial failure of Wild Child has been attributed to the lack of social media and internet-based marketing that should've been used to reach its intended age group; what the box office numbers didn’t show were the young viewers secretly discovering it through daytime television movie slots on their own. Now, with a changing and fragmented media landscape, many are discovering that things they enjoyed in private—somewhat shamefully with friends—can be a source of public communion and joy.  “It’s on the verge of cult status,” Sophie evaluates: “I would love for it to have the respect it deserves.”