Nancy Drew, the new theatrical film based on the classic girls’ book series (the first theatrical film adaptation since the 1930s), has opened to lukewarm reviews.
Of course it’s just a silly child-oriented adventure-comedy on the surface, and glittering things are all that nearly all critics see today. But underlying the frivolity is some very sound thinking and solid values. It would be a pity for people young and old to miss them because of a snobbish preference for sophisticated surfaces empty of real goodness.
The film includes a very fun and reasonably well-pursued murder mystery, which of course involves Nancy in several harrowing scrapes, few of which are presented with relentless plausibility.
Yet this mystery has strong thematic elements that tie it very nicely to the main story . The mystery involves the death of a famous movie actress a couple of decades ago, and the discovery of a possible unacknowledged daughter, whom it turns out she had given up for adoption. This, of course, would affect the disposition of her considerable estate.
As is the case with all mysteries involving crimes that have gone unsolved for a long period of time, the mystery in Nancy Drew focuses our attention on the way history always exerts its hold on us. None of us is fully autonomous, much as we’d like to think so and as much as our current culture tries to persuade us so, and a healthy respect for what has gone before us is essential to a full understanding of our current circumstances.
That’s why the film’s other theme works so well. Nancy, being raised alone by her widowed father, is independent in all the right ways and thoroughly respectful of traditional values. Coming from the small, Midwestern town of River Heights, Nancy has been brought up in a culture that clearly values community and that teaches simple values that time has proven effective.
She is never in the least priggish, however, and Emma Roberts, who does a terrific job in the title role, projects her sincerity brilliantly.
Compassion for others less fortunate than she is what motivates Nancy to delve into mysteries, even in (very reluctant) defiance of her father’s explicit directive. The film shows that this sympathy is clearly rooted in good part in her feelings of sadness at the early loss of her mother. Yet she never dwells on her own feelings, preferring instead to get on with life and try to help those less fortunate than she.
The film’s use of unwed mothers as a thematic and plot device is particularly smart in laying out the differences between Nancy’s ways and those promulgated by most of modern American society. It is a superbly revealing contrast indeed as the movie presents it.
As one manifestation of her intense desire to help others, Nancy has taken CPR and emergency medicine training, in addition to her amateur detective work. Emma Roberts’ performance emphasizes the cheerful and indomitable side of the character—as opposed to Bonita Granville’s amusingly bristly and self-assertive Nancy of the 1930s films—and the contrast with the self-absorbed, materialistic, hedonistic Hollywood society to which Nancy and her father have moved at the beginning of the film is very strong and pointed.
It will, in fact, be too strong and pointed for many adults in the audience, especially those whose values don’t exactly shine as brightly and laudably as Nancy’s, but the message is perfectly pitched to get through to young girls. Nancy wants to do right more than she wants to be liked. That’s a lesson we all have to learn, and Nancy Drew makes it quite clear. In pursuit of what is good, Nancy likes much that is old and far out of fashion, especially her clothes but also including music, movies, food, exercise, and the like. Her manners are old-fashioned and extremely appealing. She is also unlike her peers in genuinely enjoying reading.
In the end, Nancy’s traditional values and classic style win the day, as everyone ultimately realizes that her ways have much to recommend them, from the hip salesgirl at a trendy LA clothing shop to Nancy’s sniping, intensely fashion- and status-conscious female classmates. Good manners, traditional values, and hard work win the day.
That’s a fine lesson for an aspiring young lady to learn—and it wouldn’t do the rest of us any harm, either.