Harriet the Spy

Based on Louise Fitzhugh's best-selling novel, Harriet the Spy is a sweet-natured morality tale about a precocious girl who, aspiring to become a writer, spends most of her time spying on and recording her observations of her parents, neighbors, and friends. Bronwen Hughes' feature directorial debut is not as bitingly nasty or humorous as the current indie hit Welcome to the Dollhouse, but it's also no as cute or cuddly as The Baby-sitter's Club, two recent films which revolve around an adolescent girl. Commercial appeal will be somewhat restricted by the fact that there aren't many boys in the story, but Paramount can still expect solid results in a summer that so far has been marked by a paucity of children and family fare.

Harriet M. Welsch (Michelle Trachtenberg) is a fearlessly bright sixth-grader determined to be a famous writer when she grows up. As a head start on her future career, Ole Golly (Rosie O'Donnell), Harriet's shrewd companion and mentor, advises her to write down everything that interests her. Harriet takes the advice fully to her heart and scribes into her secret spy notebook candid–and often not-so-candid–tales about her neighbors and classmates.

Detached from her stuffy yuppie parents (J. Smith-Cameron and Robert Joy), Harriet forms a clique of outcasts with her two best friends, Janie (Vanessa Lee Chester), a black girl living with her single mom and obsessed with all kinds of lab experiments, and Sport (Gregory Smith), a product of a broken family who takes care of his poor father.

A moral crisis occurs, when Harriet's classmates find her notebook and read its scandalous contents out loud, which includes offensive assertions about her two buddies, who were totally unaware they were part of her journal. As a result, the tables turn and a vicious retaliation campaign, conducted by all of Harriet's classmates, finds her humiliatingly rejected and totally isolated.

Adapting to the screen Fitzhugh's much-loved 1964 novel, Petrie and Rebeck have taken a number of important steps. To make the tale more timeless and universal, the setting is changed from New York in the early l960s to Any City, U.S.A.; shot in Toronto (and Florida), the context defies any recognizability. More appropriate is the change of the grocery store owners from Italian-American (in the book) to Koreans. Scripters keep a tight look on Harriet, providing along the way some poignant commentary on an independently-minded girl, whose thirst for adventure and “special” way at looking at the world make her an outsider par excellence, with all the pain and loneliness involved.

Helmer Hughes, whose background is in commercials and music videos, gives the yarn a vibrant rhythm and a bold visual look. Under her energetic direction, the tale remains moralistic and inspirational without being overly sappy or sentimental, which is often the problem of such fare.

Making her bigscreen acting debut, Trachtenberg is fresh and natural, embodying her demanding role (she's in almost every scene) with the necessary vivacious spark but also vulnerability. Her interactions with O'Donnell, who lends her role the right balance of eccentricity and maturity, are particularly enjoyable; when O'Donnell quits the story, her presence is very much missed. It's also fun to see the still beautiful Ertha Kitt in the cameo role of a flamboyantly dressed and behaved neighbor. As expected, however, thesps cast as representatives of the adult world (Harriet's parents, teacher, psychologist) are stuck with standard-issue, caricaturistic roles.

There are strong contributions from lenser Francis Kenny, designer Lester Cohen, and costumer Donna Zakowska. It's probably no coincidence that Harriet the Spy boasts the same dynamic tempo that Clueless had, for both were edited by Debra Chiate. Whenever the yarn begins to sag, due to the material's inherently pedagogic nature, Chiate comes up with a snappy device that places the film back on the right–and fast–lane.