June 14, 2007

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Nancy Drew (PG)
The girl detective of roadster and widowed-dad fame comes to the big screen (and to Hollywood, no less) in Nancy Drew, a light but sweet riff on the much beloved series of, like, a billion mystery books.

Because, you know, there aren’t just the classic Nancy Drews but also the series that took this teen out of high school and eventually put her in college. In this movie, Nancy is still in high school and, though she looks about 13 must be at least 16 because she has her classic blue roadster and is allowed to drive it unaccompanied by an adult.

Nancy (Emma Roberts) is smart and capable — smart enough to capture criminals the River Heights police department doesn’t seem able to capture and capable enough to rent a house for her and her father (Tate Donovan) when he tells her that they will briefly, at least, be moving to the Hollywood Hills. Nancy being Nancy, she naturally picks a house with a mystery attached to it — it’s the house were a famous movie star vanished and then appeared five months later dead in her pool. Unfortunately for Nancy, her dad Carson wants her to give up sleuthing for the time being and work on being a normal teenager. “Normal” is difficult for Nancy — she’s proper and a high achiever and she dresses like, well, like Nancy Drew on old book covers. At her new, like, totally trendy high school, she finds her do-gooder qualities set her apart from her eye-rolling peers and soon finds herself with only one friend — Corky (Josh Flitter), a besotted and equally outcast 12-year-old. He is, however, still teen-boy enough to spar with Ned (Max Thieriot) when Nancy’s almost-boyfriend arrives from River Heights for a visit.

The mystery of the dead movie star is every bit as fanciful as the words “Nancy Drew” and “haunted house” would lead you to suspect it to be. This is not Veronica Mars and her weary confidence and tough-girl attitude. Nancy Drew here is smart but girlish. She sleuths for the crossword-puzzle thrill of it and would never charge money or use her powers for vengeance, like Veronica Mars occasionally did. (In the first season of that show, Veronica was also 16 but the difference between these two girl detectives is like the difference between the characters in the American Girl series and the ladies of Death Proof.) Even the danger here, which on its face doesn’t sound so wholesome (a pack of thugs chase and attempt to kidnap or kill Nancy) is rather mild. The kids of The CW are regularly in far more peril and any girl who’s old enough to sit still for a novel where Nancy and the very meek Ned make eyes at each other but seldom even kiss is probably mature enough to handle the mild frights of the grumpy caretaker who seems to appear out of thin air.

Nancy Drew doesn’t offer much to the middle-aged Nancy fan — I remember thinking she was a lot cooler than this movie lets on. (Again, for a fantasy redo of your teen years, Nancy fans, I recommend the first season of Veronica Mars.) But in a choice between Gossip Girls and Nancy Drew, this old girl (Nancy’s about 77 now) is a smart, refreshingly non-annoying portrait of a teenager. If your girls (let’s not kid ourselves about any boys seeing this movie) aren’t already knee-deep in Laguna Beach DVDs, there might still be time to keep your daughter away from the O.C. with a little Nancy. B-

Rated PG for mild violence, thematic elements and brief language. Directed by Andrew Fleming and written by Fleming and Tiffany Paulsen (from characters by Mildred Wirt Benson, writing as Carolyn Keene), Nancy Drew is an hour and 39 minutes long and will open in wide release on June 15. It is distributed by Warner Brothers.