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Stephanie Daley

Standout, Thought-Provoking Drama

Winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, Stephanie Daley, writer/director Hilary Brougher’s second feature-length film examines two women, opposites in age, experiences, beliefs, and desires, and the life-altering decisions surrounding pregnancy and childbirth. Never polemical or heavy-handed, and often insightful and thought-provoking, Stephanie Daley is also never less than absorbing throughout its brief ninety-minute running time, thanks in large part to standout performances by Tilda Swinton and Amber Tamblyn in the lead roles.

Lydie Crane (Tilda Swinton), a pregnant forensic psychologist who works for the prosecutor’s office, is asked to examine Stephanie Daley (Amber Tamblyn), a sixteen-year old high school student accused of concealing her pregnancy from her family and school and murdering her baby during a high school ski trip. Facing jail time, Stephanie and her parents, Frank (Denis O'Hare) and Miri (Melissa Leo), agree to allow Lydie to examine Stephanie in the hope that Lydie’s final report will exonerate Stephanie of any criminal wrongdoing. While Miri believes in Stephanie’s innocence, Frank seems less certain but prefers, like Miri, to live in denial than to accept his daughter’s guilt, criminal or moral.

Stephanie’s sessions with Lydie begin cautiously, but Lydie quickly realizes that Stephanie’s in denial and only a non-confrontational approach will lead Stephanie to reveal what she may or may not have done and the reasons for her action. As Stephanie begins to reveal details about the pregnancy, her family life, and the fateful ski trip during her sessions with Lydie, a tentative trust begins between the two women. Lydie, however, has anxieties of her own: she’s concerned about the health of her baby (she’s had two previous miscarriages) and her relationship with her husband, Paul (Timothy Hutton), begins to strain under the unresolved issue of their last child’s death.

Structurally, Stephanie Daley is part mystery, part psychological thriller, and part character study, but it’s more than any of these genre elements would indicate. The movie touches on contemporary social, cultural and political issues (i.e., abortion, sexual education, religion, the role of religion in government decision making, the treatment of youthful offenders) without turning any of these issues into TV-movie-of-the-week melodrama. Instead, Hilary Brougher lets these issues emerge organically from the dilemmas the characters faces and the difficult choices they make to resolve those dilemmas. Not surprisingly, it becomes easy to empathize with Stephanie’s inner struggle and Lydie’s fears about her future.

Story and themes aside, Tilda Swinton and Amber Tamblyn performances in the lead roles will pull audiences in and keep them watching through to the end credits. British born and trained, Swinton has been never less than adventurous in her roles, ranging from the gender- and time-hopping lead character in Sally Potter’s Orlando to the fiercely protective matriarch in Scott McGehee and David Siegel's The Deep End. She’s no less relatable or watchable here, but it’s Amber Tamblyn, best known as television’s “Joan of Arcadia”, who gives a nuanced performance that naturalistically conveys the title character’s varying degrees of emotional anguish. She’s never less than riveting when she’s onscreen and that’s no mean feat considering she’s often sharing screen time with Swinton.

As well written and performed as Stephanie Daley is, though, it isn’t without faults. The film resolves Stephanie’s storyline and leaves the resolution of Lydie’s relationship with her husband and the birth of her presumably healthy child offscreen. Brougher’s reliance on handheld camerawork works best during the more intense character-revealing scenes (especially during the pivotal birth scene filmed disconcertingly close-up), but the constant camera movement and refocusing feels unnecessarily gimmicky and distracting when it shouldn’t be. Still, these are minor faults with a film that explores potentially inflammatory issues without heavy-handed sermonizing, demonizing particular viewpoints, or offering simple-minded solutions. Stephanie Daley may ask more questions than it answers, but they’re the right questions to ask at the right time.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars