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Geek Girl review – this joyful adaptation is non-stop fun
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Geek Girl review – this joyful adaptation is non-stop fun

I approached the new Netflix adaptation of Holly Smale’s bestselling Geek Girl with no little trepidation. I love that book and the five that have succeeded it since it was published in 2013, despite it being aimed at a substantially younger reading demographic than I I belong to. And I feel deeply protective of its heroine, 15-year-old Harriet Manners, who is an absolutely captivating blend of exuberance and vulnerability that needs to be preserved at all costs – a tough one to capture for any actor young enough to play the part.

Harriet is a self-declared geek with a love of odd facts, logical argument and well-researched presentations. The finer points of social interaction elude her and she spends a lot of time falling over, but she has her best friend Nat and stalwart companion Toby to catch her before she does herself too much literal or metaphorical damage. Which is not to say she isn’t, in her glorious eccentricity, a person of interest to the mean girl clique at school – but Harriet is an indefatigable optimist and carries on ploughing her wonky furrow undeterred. It is as much of a surprise to her as it is to everyone else when she is scouted by an agency and finds herself becoming an increasingly successful model. If this has just made you roll your eyes in disappointment, please return them to their original positions. Yes, Harriet’s is in some ways a Cinderella story (plus romcom once she meets fellow model Nick) but not one that ever becomes vapid – or results in any change for the worse in our redoubtable heroine. The books have charm and strength and, in Harriet, a genuinely idiosyncratic female protagonist. Smale seemed to capture a very specific form of lightning in a bottle.

The books were written before Smale received the diagnosis a few years ago, at the age of 39, of autism. It doesn’t “explain” Harriet – any more, I presume, than it “explains” Smale – but it does give some insight into why the books seem to be written slightly on the slant to just about everything else that was out there in middle grade/younger-end-of-young-adult fiction at the time.

Smale and fellow novelist Jessica Ruston’s screen version has retained the joyful essence of the books and – with a deeply admiring nod to the casting directors here – have in Emily Carey a Harriet who delivers everything they need. She is ably supported by Rochelle Harrington as Nat and Zac Looker as Toby. If I were to quibble, I would say that Harriet is slightly flattened (perhaps inevitably) and I wish that she could have been moved closer to Looker’s Toby (a wonderful performance) on the eccentricity scale and him moved slightly up again. But – quibbling. Harriet does, after all, wear her Halloween spider costume to her agency audition (fashion = all black is the reasoning, in case you were wondering) – ultimately with aplomb – and never loses the air of naif-cum-chaos-demon that truly defines her.

The episodes are wisely kept to a tight half hour or less and the energy never flags. Within 90 minutes Harriet’s geek bona fides have been well established, her class sent on a jaunt to London during fashion week, her discovery made by scouts Wilbur (Emmanuel Imani, having a possibly illegal amount of fun with the part of fairy godfather) and Betty (Hebe Beardsall, channelling another joyfully odd spirit from the books). Harriet meets the lovely Nick (“A name I can see being scribbled in many journals over the coming days”) and her father and stepmother are dragooned into helping her realise her new dream. It is fresh, lively and funny and should bring much relief and happiness to all Geek Girl’s fans.

The screeners, alas, arrived too late for me to watch the whole series for review but so far at least Harriet has not been described as autistic or neurodivergent. Her enthusiasms/obsessive passions for subjects, her wearing of headphones in the classroom and her internal sufferings (described in voiceover) when presented with environments that are too loud, busy or colourful are obviously designed to tip us off about the likelihood. The question of whether she will or should be given the diagnosis is an interesting one – does it shut down conversation or open one up? Do you champion visibility or avoid labels and circumscription? When does eccentricity become a medical matter? Such questions run underneath the fun, but are probably better wrestled with after the credits roll. In the meantime, be enchanted.

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  • Geek Girl is on Netflix

Source: theguardian.com