In the quaint town of River Heights, Nancy Drew is the biggest thing going. The irrepressibly industrious teen sleuth catches criminals in the act, works out plea bargains, hands the baddies over to the cops and has the chief of police at her beck and call. She can even leap tall buildings in a single bound. Oh wait, that's Superman.
But as far as this film's concerned, Nancy's not far behind the Man of Steel. A model student with impeccable character, she outwits burglars and swindlers—and even sews her own clothes. The heroine who's been gracing young adult literature since 1930 has now made her way onto the big screen, and, thankfully, filmmakers have stayed true to the retro charm of Miss Drew's earlier years by painting her as an old-fashioned girl with old-fashioned manners. That makes her a standout, even in River Heights. So you can guess what happens when she and her widower father move temporarily to Los Angeles.
Though Carson Drew tries to talk his daughter into spending less time solving mysteries and more time being a "normal" teenager, Nancy can't help herself. She's practically oblivious to the southern California social scene. Besides, she's already got her eye on a new mystery: the death of actress Dehlia Draycott, whose estate the Drews will be renting during their stay in L.A. With the help of her faithful friend Ned Nickerson and her new buddy Corky, she's on her way to solving the case before her feet even hit California soil.
Hands down, Nancy Drew's strongest message encourages young women to develop their own style. Forget about trends. Forget about fashion magazines. Forget about what the "cool girls" think of you. Be yourself. Nancy does this so gracefully that it doesn't even feel like she's trying to prove a point. She's just comfortable with herself, and it shows. It's also impossible to miss the fact that Nancy's style is simultaneously modest and classy. And when was the last time those adjectives got much attention in a film targeting teen and preteen girls?
Nancy and Carson have a caring relationship (even if Dad is a bit unobservant at times). Carson tries to protect Nancy from outside dangers and from her own insatiable appetite for mysteries. To that end, he asks Nancy to swear off sleuthing while they're in California. This proves a dilemma for Nancy, because she's already started working on the Draycott case. Nancy wrestles with her dual loyalties throughout the movie, and it's clear that she really wants to honor her dad. In the end Carson praises Nancy for "doing the right thing," even though he hadn't initially wanted her working on any cases. In addition to the loving relationship between father and daughter, comments are made about the importance of mothers—especially since Nancy has grown up without hers.
The detective daughter has learned from her attorney father that helping people is the best motivation for taking cases, and this mindset figures heavily into Nancy's work on the Draycott mystery. In addition, Nancy is also very concerned with courtesy, following rules, improving her surroundings and doing what's right. She comes off as a bit of an overachiever at times, but her high morals are generally presented as a positive thing.
The film's first crime scene is a church, where two burglars are breaking in. While Nancy works to catch them in the act, she hides in the sanctuary dressed as a saint. Later, the local priest prays for her and her crime-fighting endeavors.
A couple of times, we see what appears to be Dehlia's ghost, but we find out that it's either a projected image or a dream. One character tells Nancy, "I am a ghost," but it's not true.
Nancy and Ned have known each other since childhood and are now experiencing the awkward teenage phase of flirtation, mild jealousy and trying to express interest in each other without really knowing how to do so. Ned is a rare find in teen male movie characters: He's honorable, loyal and a good friend to Nancy. In the end, they kiss.
While Nancy's outfits are mostly modest, one or two of her '60s-style skirts are on the short side. A few other female characters display their midriffs. At one point Corky—who has a crush on Nancy—tells her, "Mouth-to-mouth [resuscitation] would be a good way to get to know each other." At a party, a boy says he was making out with a girl. (We don't see them.)
Nancy wonders aloud if Dehlia might have been pregnant, even though she wasn't married. [Spoiler Warning] It turns out that the girl sleuth's guess is correct.
A security guard gets tied up by thieves during a burglary. Nancy hangs from the edge of a roof and almost falls before letting herself down with a rope from her hopelessly stereotypical "sleuthing kit." Nancy describes (but we don't witness) Dehlia's death by drowning. Carson almost runs over a lady because he's talking on his cell phone while driving.
The closer Nancy gets to solving the mystery, the more dangerous her life becomes. She receives threatening phone calls. A mysterious driver in a Land Rover chases her. She finds a ticking time bomb in her car, throws it down an open manhole and is knocked to the ground by its explosion. Later, she's forced to jump from a moving car, while her dad is held inside the car and pummeled by criminals. Then she's kidnapped and drugged. After she escapes, she winds up back at the Draycott mansion, where an "unexpected" ally knocks the bad guy out with a shovel, saving Nancy's life.
Given the long history of Nancy Drew's character, there are two groups of moviegoers happily anticipating this film's opening: young girls excited to see a girl-power mystery, and grown women who were Nancy Drew bookworms in their youth. The older group will likely be a little disappointed, as the new Nancy Drew seems to be somewhat of a caricature: She's noticeably more hyper and neurotic than her storybook predecessor. Plus, the film has all of the oversimplification of a teen mystery novel with a little—but not enough—humorous self-awareness tossed in to make the story satisfying for adults.
On the other hand, judging from the reaction of throngs of 8- to 13-year-old girls with whom I shared a theater, Nancy Drew really hits the spot for younger viewers who aren't expecting complete faithfulness to the books. For them, there's a lot to love, most of which is wrapped up in a smart, spunky sleuth who's comfortable in her own skin and courteous to a fault. And with the exception of a few characters' poorly chosen words (none of which are spoken by the leading lady), Nancy Drew offers a heroine they can still look up to.