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.