After watching the postmodern teen-detective stars of Brick and Veronica Mars, reviving Nancy Drew, girl detective, might seem a redundant, backwards task. The trailers for this project appeared in line with those expectations, casting Nancy in what looked like a snarky, reductive fusion of The Brady Bunch Movie and Mean Girls: the '50s-style sleuth adrift in cynical modern (which is to say, imminently outdated) high school.
But Andrew Fleming
's take on Nancy Drew turns out to be a snappy charmer. Though the film takes place in the present, Nancy's life could still be described by the MPAA tags on a trailer for a PG movie: mild peril, brief teen partying; she hasn't been glammed into 2007. But the film uses this mildness to its advantage, starting with the decision not to play Nancy’s old-fashioned virtues -- lawful curiosity, modest fashions, and an unfailing politeness even in the face of peril -- for satire. That is not to say that Nancy (Emma Roberts
, niece of Julia
, son of Eric
) isn’t oblivious to modern life; she knows about iPods and laptops. She's just old-fashioned (she prefers vinyl and books), which makes her dedication to old-timey detecting (or "sleuthing," as she calls it) all the more individualistic, even touching, as well as sweetly funny. Article continues below
It's the perfect mix of retro and modern; further updating would've turned her into one of the characters inspired by the old books. The business of contrasting her against the harsh realities of texting, jabbering, promiscuous teens (or the teen comedy versions of same) does make fleeting appearances, but Nancy is too steadfast in her sleuthing to treat popularity as anything more than a subplot.
No, her brain stays trained on the case of the dead '50s starlet. The Drew family (minus mom, who died when Nancy was young) has temporarily relocated to Los Angeles, and Nancy finagles a house rental with a mysterious backstory despite the request of her father (Tate Donovan
) that she lay off investigative work in this bigger, nastier city.
Fleming has fun with the L.A. seediness, adding tilted, shadowy shots to the requisite secret passageways and musty attics; I think I even caught a glimpse of some half-open blinds. Bringing these noir shadings -- themselves appropriately retro -- into the Nancy Drew world -- carries along the central mystery, though it sags a little toward the end, landing somewhere between the simplicity of a slim mystery book and the twisty progression we might prefer from a feature film.
But the pleasure of Nancy Drew isn't really the mystery itself, but Nancy's methods, and her constant struggle to be true to both her father's wishes and her nose for trouble. The Roberts performance is instrumental in this conflict, hinting at the OCD behind our girl's talents.
In her oscillation between detecting and attempts at hitting some kind of teenage status quo (her interpretations of which are illustrated with casual, deadpan amusement), Nancy acquires Corky (Josh Flitter
), a 12-year-old sidekick (Nancy is supposedly 16, though, in a fitting reversal of typical Hollywood casting, Roberts looks a bit younger than that, rather than five years older). In most other tween-targeted movies, Corky would be a pesky, smart-and-or-foul-mouthed little brother character -- indeed, he is the younger brother of one of the bitchy "normal" girls -- but the screenwriters and Flitter decide to have Corky infatuated with Nancy -- he's captivated by her unironic practicality. He only gets nasty out of jealousy with her mild hometown beau Ned (Max Thierot
), who looks and sounds more or less like a real kid. To Nancy and the movie, he's a pleasant, likable afterthought.
The movie is full of these little choices -- including the first makeover scene I can recall that ends with the heroine keeping her old clothes -- and they add up to a movie with comfy familiarity that nonetheless avoids a lot of clichés. Fleming, who has visited this warmly goofy territory before with Dick, has a gift for not pushing the comedy too hard. He rarely steps on a gag's -- or the audience's -- toes. The laughter comes so naturally that it feels like a perpetual surprise.
Nancy Drew may not be quite as sly as Dick (to say nothing of Nancy's more eclectic, adult-minded teen-detective cousins), but it's perfect for a particular audience -- too old for an all-cartoon diet, but still not yet interested in movies about adults and/or overgrown children -- that gets offered a lot of junk. The film celebrates not the fifties or today's kids, not fashion or clique-busting or best friends forever, but Nancy Drew and her stubborn insistence on doing the right thing. In other words, it's a scene of brief teen partying.