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'Harriet the Spy': A Growing Pain

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 10, 1996

"Harriet the Spy," a tedious adaptation of Louise Fitzhugh's bestseller, tags along with the book's 11-year-old heroine, a sixth grader who snoops on her friends and neighbors, then jots down candid, often cruel observations about them in her top-secret notebook. Alas, Harriet's private musings become public knowledge when a prissy nemesis steals her notebook and shares its contents with her classmates.

Harriet M. Welsch (precocious Michelle Trachtenberg) is not especially good company, nor are the would-be Jeanne LeCarre's scribblings insightful or entertaining. Her rapacious curiosity aside, Harriet is pretty darned ordinary. And that is exactly what Nickelodeon Movies wanted from the leading lass of its first big-screen outing. Harriet may be a peeping tomboy, but she is nevertheless a real -- not a cute! -- kid caught up in the typical rough-and-tumble of pre-prepubescence.

Ignored by her self-obsessed parents and coddled by her eccentric nanny (Rosie O'Donnell), Harriet has grown into something of a pill. Her contrariness, of course, is the very quality that endeared her to fans of Fitzhugh's 1964 portrait of the artist as a young woman. Saddled with artistic inclinations, Harriet is very much her own little person.

But as scads of preteen and teen movies have observed, individuality becomes suspicious as one nears the peer pressure-cooker of adolescence. It's much easier to think in-thoughts and wear in-clothes. But Harriet won't. She won't bend her principles -- not even for her best friends Sport (Gregory Smith) and Janie (Vanessa Lee Chester).

Life, however, is a balancing act and that is one of this picture's many well-nigh-inscrutable messages. The film, which deals with Harriet's humiliation at the hands of her vengeful classmate, appears to be suggesting that lying is preferable to truth in dealing with friends, though its true intent is discernible only to those with decoder rings. Written by Douglas Petrie and Theresa Rebeck and directed by Brownwen Hughes, "Harriet the Spy" isn't really a story, but a dark slice of this ruminative child's inner life. Like the more clearly comic "Welcome to the Dollhouse," this film finds more wrong than wonder in these terrible, tenderfoot years.

Harriet the Spy is rated PG for minor vulgarity.

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