In the realm of movies aimed at preteens, there is probably very little this discerning group won't find dorky. An exception, I say with some trepidation, might be the long-overdue movie version of Harriet the Spy, which is a joint venture of Nickelodeon TV and Paramount Pictures. The late Louise Fitzhugh's 1964 novel about youthful adventure, life changes and the value of friendship is almost always called "beloved." In any case, it has survived shifts in taste from the lava-lamp era to the reign of Doc Martens. So if the current crop of eleven- and twelve-year-olds is to find any movie cool enough not to be tossed into, like, the trash, maybe this is the one.
Devotees of Ms. Fitzhugh's opus (who include a lot of late Boomers on a nostalgia trip) will find some useful changes on the screen. Lest the classic's newest audience see the movie as some Paleolithic relic, clothing, tunes and argot have all been updated for the Nineties, the racial/ethnic mix of the characters has been adjusted, and it's been shot in the jittery rock-video style appropriate to short attention spans.
But writers Greg Taylor and Julie Talen and director Bronwen Hughes also know when to stop tinkering. At bottom, Harriet is still a tale about growing up, making mistakes and putting things right again, afflicted by a minimum of sentimentality and elevated by a fleck of pioneer feminism. In the service of realism, Hughes has even left in every burp and slurp her young cast could come up with.
The title heroine, portrayed by a whirling dervish named Michelle Trach-tenberg, is a sixth-grader with a writing career on the horizon, and that's what gets her into trouble. Devoted to learning all she can about the world, she boldly perches on strangers' windowsills, peers into the back room of the corner grocery store (Chinese now, not Italian) and scribbles into her trusty black theme book the frankest observations about her best friends. Harriet's first crisis arises when her beloved nanny, Ole Golly (Rosie O'Donnell), takes a powder; the second erupts when a schoolroom rival steals her diary and goes public with the hurtful contents.
As a result, Harriet's science-minded best friend Janie (Vanessa Lee Chester) and sidekick Sport (Gregory Smith) turn against her, along with every other kid in school. In art class, they even pour blue paint on her head. Retaliating, Harriet humiliates each of them again and finds herself friendless and lonely.
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To full-sized sophisticates, none of this may seem so crucial. But the filmmakers make sure everyone in the theater feels the sensitivities of Harriet and the other kids before (whew!) righting the pre-hormonal ship and putting the movie's little charges back on the voyage to puberty. Thanks to Fitzhugh's foresight and Hughes's good sense, Harriet the Spy is also uncommonly observant of details--from the lamebrained sex-ed films sixth-graders have to sit through to the high energy of a "bumper tag" game in the park.
In the end, of course, Harriet learns a lesson: "Truth is important; so are your friends." So, in this summer season, is making a kids' movie worthy of kids and their fertile imaginations. Let's hope they don't think it's dorky.
Harriet the Spy.
Written by Greg Taylor and Julie Talen, from a novel by Louise Fitzhugh. Directed by Bronwen Hughes. With Michelle Trachtenberg, Rosie O'Donnell, Vanessa Lee Chester, Gregory Smith and Eartha Kitt.