Harriet the Spy is a wonderfully textured little movie, displaying a welcome amount of emotional depth. Though made for children, its virtues transcend age groups - it deftly touches on some very relatable and universal themes. And unlike other children's fare, it dares to venture into some rather somber and affecting territory.
In the title role of Harriet, Michelle Trachtenberg is a delight. She infuses the role with a wide and impressive range of emotion and displays remarkable talent for her age. The character of Harriet is realistically and refreshingly portrayed - like any 11 year-old she has a wealth of charms as well as her share of foibles. Somewhat of an outsider, Harriet turns inward when trouble ensues - due to her self-imposed isolationism, Harriet has a hard time when she falls out of favor with her friends. She makes mistakes along the way - but ultimately, she overcomes her flaws, reaches out to her friends, and takes a more active role in the world. Seeing this honest portrayal of an 11 year-old makes for a rather satisfying journey.
Young Michelle Trachtenberg deftly captures a sense of innocence, curiosity, and angst. Her performance often tugs at the heartstrings due to its subtle delivery. She very much captures a sense of wide-eyed adorability - yet she's often quite haunting when serving as the film's narrator. In the role of Ole Golly, Rosie O'Donnell puts in a decent, if understated performance. And the actors playing Harriet's friends do a nice job of portraying the camaraderie between the three.
Visually, the film is shot in bright colors and an eclectic style. Yet for all the cheery stylistic content, the film touches on some fairly serious emotional territory. True to real life, when the children turn on Harriet they become quite cruel and antagonistic. Through Harriet's alienation, the mood is quite morose and affecting - once again, Trachtenberg shines in her portrayal of a hurt, confused, and isolated young girl.
The director nicely contrasts innocent childlike elements with a darker undercurrent... like a scene of a child's flipbook that spells out the words 'Everybody hates me'. Or a shot of lonely friendless Harriet washing up in the bathroom, while a sing-song chant of friendship ironically echoes in the background. There's a nice juxtaposition between the dearly childish and the darkly mature.
Yet the darkness serves a purpose - for when the positive themes arise, they shine all the more authentically. After all, the value of friendship seems much more potent after viewing the angst and pain of Harriet's friendless life. Ultimately, the movie ends on a rather charming and positive note - Harriet learns, and grows, and finds her happiness.
Ultimately, Harriet the Spy is a worthwhile little movie. The performances are solid, and there's a strong emotional core. Unlike other children's movies, Harriet the Spy doesn't beat you over the head with its messages. Instead, it subtly touches upon the importance of tolerance, friendship, honesty, and balance. It's a thoughtful and charming look into the world of a child.