Hollywood producers looking for good preteen actors should look no further than Nickelodeon's "The Adventures of Pete and Pete."
The show already produced Heather Matarazzo, who went from a bit part on the series to a startlingly adult performance in the otherwise uneven film "Welcome to the Dollhouse." Now, Michelle Trachtenberg, who has a recurring role on the show, enlivens the film adaptation of Louise Fitzhugh's beloved children's novel "Harriet the Spy."
Trachtenberg stars as Harriet M. Welsch, a precocious 11-year-old who spies on her friends, family and neighbors and writes her observations down in her secret spy notebook. Aided by her nanny and mentor, Golly (Rosie O'Don-nell), Harriet wants to be a writer, and what better way is there for her to learn than by observation?
But Harriet is also an average sixth-grader who likes to play with her friends, Janie (Vanessa Lee Chester), a mad scientist in training, and Sport (Gregory Smith), who balances being a kid with taking care of his impoverished writer father.
It's an especially trying time in Harriet's life, since Golly has decided that Harriet is too old to have a nanny. Also, her notebook and its incriminating contents have fallen into the hands of her fellow sixth-graders, including Janie and Sports, who are hurt by some of the revelations.
Despite the downbeat subject material, "Harriet the Spy" is very much a comedy, though. Every time a near tragedy or hurtful situation occurs, there's a silly joke or sly tweak to the situation to lighten things up.
That's not to say "Harriet the Spy" is perfect. It lags in the middle and nearly topples during the scenes where the other sixth-graders form a spycatchers club and taunt their former friend.
Also, adults may have their patience tested by the film at times. There are a couple of mildly vulgar jokes and comments, and goop flies in a pair of scenes (what would a Nickelodeon program or film be without it?). But the movie really is supposed to be for kids after all, and since none of the material is too dark, it should do a decent job of keeping them entertained.
As mentioned, Trachtenberg is terrific in her first starring role. She's hyper, smart, silly and even adorable at times. Surprisingly, O'Donnell is somewhat aloof and almost wooden in some places. But her scenes with Trachtenberg exude genuine warmth.
Some of the credit should also go to director Bronwen Hughes, a commercial and television director (including some episodes of the "Kids in the Hall" series), who keeps things moving with a fluid but never jarring style.
Preceding "Harriet the Spy" is an awfully unfunny "Hey Arnold!" animated short that seems much longer than its eight minutes. (Some short!)
Actually a preview of a series that is supposed to start on Nickelodeon this fall, it features Arnold, a lad with a football-shaped head who is tormented by the school bully.
Unfortunately, even more of its humor is juvenile in nature, and frankly, we've seen the loveable loser schtick done much better with Charles Schultz's Charlie Brown. The animation isn't too good, either. It's flat and the character designs are pretty unoriginal.