Nancy Drew solves the modern girl blues.
Ned (Max Thieriot), left, Nancy (Emma Roberts) and Corky (Josh Flitter) put their heads together in director Andrew Flemings Nancy Drew. (Melinda Sue Gordon / Warner Brothers)
Nancy Drew, played by Emma Roberts (Eric's daughter and Julia's niece), does stuff. Not only does she do stuff, she does it ingeniously and sincerely. She outsmarts local law enforcement with nary an eye roll or a sarcastic remark. She escapes from kidnappers with a crucial item using string and a clothespin. She refuses to exceed the speed limit during a car chase. Caught up in a big case, she benignly neglects her boyfriend, Ned Nickerson (Max Thieriot), who shares her total disregard for the hollow teenage posturing. Though she's initially hurt by the rejection of her peers at her new school, she remains as she is and finds the one weird friend who likes her for her. I think it's the most radical thing I've seen so far this summer.
Directed by Andrew Fleming from a script by Fleming and Tiffany Paulsen, the latest screen incarnation of "Nancy Drew" (she's appeared on television and video over the years; the last time she was on the big screen was the late 1930s) seems to be based on a couple of assumptions. First, that, thanks to the books, the mothers in the audience may already be familiar with the amateur sleuth from the small town of River Heights, with her blue roadster and her freshly baked goods provided by her uniformed German housekeeper, Hannah. Second, that their daughters will have no idea who this girl is and will require some fashion and celebrity-themed material in order not to feel as if they've walked into the theater and onto another planet.
To this end, the filmmakers relocate Nancy and her do-good lawyer dad, Carson (Tate Donovan), from River Heights to Los Angeles, where he's taken a new job. In exchange for a promise to quit her dangerous detective activities and act like a "normal" teenager, Carson allows Nancy (who is motherless) to pick the house they'll live in. Unable to resist a mystery, Nancy chooses the decaying and possibly haunted mansion of a legendary movie star named Dehlia Draycott (Laura Elena Harring), whose mysterious and probably murderous death by drowning has never been solved. The house, leased to the Drews by the flamboyant real estate agent Barbara Barbara (Caroline Aaron), comes complete with trap doors, secret passageways and a strange caretaker named Leshing (Marshall Bell), who always turns up unexpectedly and always seems to be lighted from below.
While Nancy, her father and their hometown seem to be suspended somewhere in the 1940s or '50s, Dehlia Draycott, her house and the mysterious Leshing seem to belong to the two decades preceding those. We're told that Dehlia was a star in the '70s and '80s, but her most contemporary get-up is a flapper dress, and Nancy checks out her movies on a World War II-era projector. The movie's chronological confusion feels at once like a tongue-in-cheek postmodern pose and a nod to the difficulty of making a movie about a character like Nancy in this day and age, but it's telling that "Nancy Drew" can't quite decide on an era. That the sight of a cute teenage girl reading technical tomes such as "Advanced Sandcastle Making" can make your heart leap says something about the moment we're enduring, and it's not very nice.
This is not to suggest that Nancy is not a fashion plate in her own right. Emma Roberts is about as pretty and put together as it's possible to be, and her costumes are whimsical, Sherlock Holmes-inspired couture. (Burberry must be pleased). To those of us who grew up in the '70s, when teen movie heroines looked like Kristy McNichol in jeans and glittery T-shirts, it's still a little sad to see how utterly all but the most doll-like representations of femininity have been banished from the media. Still, given the contemporary reality, "Nancy Drew" feels like a refreshing turn in a positive direction, and I, for one, kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Not that Nancy's look isn't fetishized, branded and marketed before the end credits even begin to roll. And it was dispiriting to read in a profile in this paper of Roberts suggesting that she's already caught up in the idea of herself as a brand-in-the-making. Hopefully, though, the girls who see "Nancy Drew" this summer will take their cues from the smart, engaged, intellectually curious character Roberts so charmingly portrays.
Despite a couple of minor letdowns along the way, however — Nancy flipping through an issue of In Style on her train ride from River Heights to Los Angeles, for instance — the movie sticks to its guns. When Inga and Trish (Daniella Monet and Kelly Vitz), Nancy's foes-turned-groupies, decide it's time to furnish her with a makeover, you brace myself for the inevitable "Pretty Woman" hooker-with-a-credit-card moment. When the scene takes another turn, you're shocked by the rush of exhilaration and gratitude.
"Nancy Drew." MPAA rating: PG for mild violence, thematic elements and brief language. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. In wide release.