"Harriet the Spy" is a sweet-natured morality tale based on Louise Fitzhugh's bestselling novel 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.

“Harriet the Spy” is a sweet-natured morality tale based on Louise Fitzhugh’s bestselling novel 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. In comparison to two recent films that revolve around an adolescent girl, Bronwen Hughes’ feature directorial debut is neither as bitingly nasty or humorous as the current indie hit “Welcome to the Dollhouse” nor as cute and cuddly as “The Baby-sitters Club.”

But Paramount can expect solid results in a summer that so far has been marked by a paucity of children’s and family fare. Harriet M. Welsch (Michelle Trachtenberg) is a fearlessly bright sixth-grader determined to be a famous writer when she grows up. Ole Golly (Rosie O’Donnell), Harriet’s shrewd nanny and mentor, advises her to write down everything that interests her. Harriet takes the advice to heart and puts into her private notebook candid tales about 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 aloud its scandalous contents, which include offensive assertions about all of them, even her two buddies. The tables then turn and a vicious retaliation campaign, conducted by Harriet’s classmates, finds her humiliatingly rejected and isolated. Writers Douglas Petrie and Theresa Rebeck have taken a number of important steps in converting Fitzhugh’s beloved 1964 novel to the bigscreen. To make the tale more timeless and universal, the setting has been changed from New York in the early 1960s to Any City, USA; pic’s locales (it was shot in Toronto and Florida) are not identifiable as a particular place.

Scripters keep the focus on Harriet, providing along the way some poignant commentary on an independent-minded girl whose thirst for adventure and “special” way of 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 musicvideos, gives the yarn a vibrant rhythm and a bold look. Under her energetic direction, the tale remains moralistic and inspirational without succumbing to sappiness, a common problem with such fare. Making her bigscreen acting debut, Trachtenberg is fresh and natural, imbuing her demanding role (she’s in almost every scene) with the necessary vivacious spark and vulnerability. Her interactions with O’Donnell, who lends her character the right balance of eccentricity andmaturity, are particularly enjoyable; when O’Donnell quits the story, her presence is very much missed. It’s also fun to see the still beautiful Eartha Kitt in the cameo role of an eccentric, flamboyantly dressed neighbor. As expected, however, thesps cast as representatives of the adult world (Harriet’s parents, teacher, psychologist) are stuck with standard-issue roles.

Production values are impressive, with especially strong contributions from lenser Francis Kenny, production designer Lester Cohen and costumer Donna Zakowska. It’s 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 pic back in the right — and fast — lane.

Harriet the Spy

Production

A Paramount release in association with Nickelodeon Movies of a Rastar production. Produced by Marykay Powell. Executive producer, Debbie Beece. Co-producer, Nava Levin. Directed by Bronwen Hughes. Screenplay, Douglas Petrie, Theresa Rebeck, based on Greg Taylor and Julie Talen's adaptation of the novel by Louise Fitzhugh.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Francis Kenny; editor, Debra Chiate; music, Jamshied Sharifi; production design, Lester Cohen; art direction, Paul Austerberry; set decoration, Gordon Sim; costume design, Donna Zakowska; sound (Dolby), Glen Gauthier; associate producer, Julia Pistor; assistant director, Andrew Shea; casting, Jill Greenberg Sands. Reviewed at Paramount Studio, L.A., June 19, 1996. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 101 min.

With

Harriet - Michelle Trachtenberg
Ole Golly - Rosie O'Donnell
Janie Gibbs - Vanessa Lee
Chester Sport - Gregory Smith
Mrs. Welsch - J. Smith-Cameron
Mr. Welsch - Robert Joy
Agatha K. Plummer - Eartha Kitt
Harrison Withers - Don Francks
George Waldenstein - Eugene Lipinski
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