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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Nancy Drew (review)

Retro Cool

There is something magnificently old-fashioned about Nancy Drew, the new adaptation of the beloved children’s books, and about Nancy Drew herself here. Which is certain to annoy a lot of serious Nancy fans, because the Nancy of the Stratemeyer Syndicate books was a hip, with-in modern girl. Of course, she was hip and with-it for the 1930s, or 1950s, or whatever particular revision of the series the reader first encountered her, and what made Nancy special then — she has her own car! — would make her ordinary how. So it works wonderfully well to make this movie Nancy a bit of a retro throwback. This is how you make a girl stand out today: you make her polite, enthusiastic, bookish, sweet, and wholesome.
It’s lovely and refreshing, and why Nancy Drew will repel today’s teens, though tweens will love her: Nancy, played by 16-year-old Emma Roberts (Julia’s niece), looks and sounds and acts like most 16-year-olds used to, not so long ago, and like how many still do today — not already jaded, oversexed, and old before their time, but like genuine, authentic, nice kids. Nancy’s sorta-boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, is played by 18-year-old Max Thieriot (The Astronaut Farmer, The Pacifier) — we’re so used to seeing buff 27-year-olds play high-schoolers that we’ve forgotten that this is what 18-year-old boys are really like, still awkward and gangly, still unsure of themselves around pretty girls. There’s none of that WB nonsense about impossibly gorgeous “teens” having impossible amounts of sex mucking up Nancy Drew. And thank goodness.

But there is, just as there was in the original 1930s books, plenty that’s charmingly subversive. Nancy and her father, widowed lawyer Carson Drew (Tate Donovan: Good Night, and Good Luck., The Pacifier) have just decamped from their pleasant, square-ish small town of River Heights for Los Angeles for Carson’s work, and Nancy — firm nonconformist that she is — is thoroughly unbowed by the horrified looks the fashionable teens of Hollywood High glare at her penny loafers, pearls, and Marsha Brady headbands. Nancy is not a clueless dork, though, not displaced in time like the movie Brady gang or Austin Powers: she’s a thoroughly modern girl who uses the Net to find clues and listens to music on her iPod. She is simply — though there’s nothing simple about it — a girl with confidence to spare and a style all her own, which is so rare to see in a movie aimed at young girls. This Nancy is one of the best role models imaginable in our sea of pop culture trash. She faces pressure to conform to Dad’s expectations, too — he worries about her sleuthing, especially in L.A., a place so much more dangerous and unknown than River Heights. (That’s a change from the books too — Carson was always a supporter of Nancy’s sleuthing — but it would be probably be unconscionable, even in a movie with the fluffy air of this one, for him to be so here.)

Her love for Dad won’t stop her, though, because she’s on to the biggest case of her tender career: the mysterious death of 70s starlet Dehlia Draycott (Laura Elena Harring [The Punisher, Derailed] in flashbacks), in whose former mansion the Drews just happen to be staying while in Hollywood. (There’s nothing “just happen” about it, actually: Nancy, already thoroughly intrigued by the mystery before they even arrived, arranged for them to rent this particular house.) And here the straight-up flavor of the original books comes through the most: there’s a secret passageway, a creepy groundskeeper, a kidnapping involving actual chloroform, a hidden will, and all manner of lovely detective-novel fun.

I don’t want to oversell the movie: the plot is simplistic, if appealing, and will truly thrill only middle-schoolers; even this devoted Nancy fan from childhood acknowledges that there is little here to attract adult audiences. But it’s dandy for young girls, particularly any who need a reminder that resisting peer pressure and being your own person can be really cool.

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MPAA: rated PG

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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  • Zoe

    I think it would’ve been fun if it would’ve been set in the 1930s. But then, I don’t suppose it would be very marketable to the teen crowd.

  • Lucy Gillam

    I’m glad to see this review, because I’ve been really wincing at the commercials. They seem to be one more instance of my generation (I’m at the older end of X) not being able to admit they loved anything of their childhoods unless they first put it through a filter of mocking, ironic distance (see, well, most movie remakes of TV shows). As someone who cut her baby teeth on Nancy Drew (I own a first edition of the first novel, passed down from my mother), I would have loved to see a real update without the nudge-nudge-wink-wink – maybe something I could share someday with the daughter I’m about to have, even. This movie may not be that, but your review makes me want to at least give it a chance.

  • According to the House Next Door site, critic Walter Chaw really really really hates this film. And Cinemarati member Jeffrey Chen is not too fond of it either.

    I was kinda hoping that the film was a lot better than its rather dubious trailer but now I’m beginning to wonder. Please tell me this is more than a glorified commercial for the two Nancy Drew DVDs that were recently released.

    My sister and I used to love this character but I’m not sure we’ll love this movie.

  • MaryAnn

    It is more than a glorified commercial for anything. It is not much more, though: it’s not a great film. It’s mostly worthy for the excellent role model this incarnation of Nancy is at this precise moment in time.

  • Kasha

    I’m a die-hard Nancy Drew fan, having read nearly all of the books. I’m only 21, but I grew up reading these books. I saw the movie today and was not disappointed at all. I found it to be charming and up to date. I was relieved that they didn’t set the movie in the 30’s or even the 50’s. This is a modernized version of a character who remains very true to the book version. I’m not entirely sure what the intended target was. I imagine it to be tweens, but my group of friends loved this movie. We are all a bit old-fashioned and prefer etiquette to social norms, so for us, this movie is absolutely perfect.

  • We are all a bit old-fashioned and prefer etiquette to social norms…
    –Kasha

    What a sad commentary on modern society that is.

    Yet I agree. In many ways I’m old-fashioned too and there are many social norms nowadays that I would rather not emulate.

    Sometimes it’s better to feel like a fifth wheel if the alternative means conforming to a society that just doesn’t make sense.

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