‘Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase’ revitalizes the resourceful young woman beloved by prior generations.
Kernel Rating: 4 (4 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 89 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 12+. This new spin on the recognizable Nancy Drew character places her in high school, where her friends are the victims of cyber-bullying and where Nancy herself is threatened by adults. Although Nancy gets into trouble, including being arrested for pulling a vengeful prank, she is motivated by justice and the movie makes clear that she needs to be better at following the rules. Aside from the cyber-bullying, teens date and one partner cheats on the other; adults drink; there is some implied but not expressed cursing; and adults intimidate teens in a few scenes, including twice with a gun. The scariest scenes are in an allegedly haunted house where a pig-faced ghost attacks three women; the scene is spooky, with jump scares and inexplicable occurrences, but everything is later explained logically.
By Roxana Hadadi
Nancy Drew was a heroine for generations of women, and she’s introduced to new viewers quite charmingly in “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase.” Set in present day, the film’s characterization keeps Nancy’s resourcefulness, ingenuity, and loyalty, and adapts those qualities to a world in which cyber-bullying and class resentments define the adolescent experience. The result is a briskly paced movie that underscores the importance of listening patiently, thinking creatively, and acting decisively, and that will inspire an affection for Nancy in another generation.
Nancy Drew (Sophia Lillis) has recently moved to small town River Heights, where her father Carson (Sam Trammell, of “The Fault In Our Stars”) is from, after her mother’s death. Although Nancy is upset about leaving the pace of Chicago and all of her friends behind, she’s familiar with River Heights from spending summers there, has the run of the town on her longboard, and already has close friends in computer whiz George (Zoe Renee) and chemistry genius Bess (Mackenzie Graham).
But when her act of “restorative justice” for Beth after she is cyber-bullied by one of the town’s richest and most popular high schoolers lands her in trouble with local police, Nancy is then confined to two solid months of community service. It’s during that time that she overhears popular girl Helen (Laura Slade Wiggins), whom Nancy’s friends can’t stand, and her great-aunt Flora (Linda Lavin) asking the sheriff for help investigating their haunting house. When the police refuse to get involved, Nancy volunteers her services, sparking a relationship with Helen and Flora that is not only unexpected by George and Bess but that also overlaps with her father’s role in a town-wide fight about possible redevelopment.
At 16 years old, this version of Nancy Drew is still figuring out what kind of presence she wants to be for her friends and for those she tries to help, and the film is intentional in how it has Nancy realize that perhaps her act of “restorative justice” isn’t exactly how she wants to be defined. Does she want to take sole responsibility for punishing other people for their behavior, or is her role more one of revealing injustice than single-handedly tackling it? The movie allows for Nancy to consider how her parents—her father a lawyer, her late mother a civil rights advocate—might have shaped her world view, but also gives opportunities for Nancy herself, when speaking with George and Bess, Helen, or the town’s sympathetic Deputy Patrick (Andrew Matthew Welch), to figure it out on her own.
Those conversations will be worth revisiting with young viewers after the film: Did they think Nancy made the right choices throughout? Was her tackling of the bully justified, or over the line? And that character development for Nancy is supported by a well-written script from Nina Fiore and John Herrera that gives Lillis a lot of opportunities to infuse her character with snarkiness and sincerity, and by effective direction from Katt Shea that keeps the film moving briskly, with suitably spooky moments and a nice narrative flow.
“Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” is a pleasing return to the kind of storytelling captured in those books, in which a mystery is tidily solved through logic and cleverness, and the film builds on that with lessons about friendship and bravery that are easy to digest for tween and teen viewers. “I’m supposed to be the hero of my own story,” a character says in “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase,” and how the film advocates for young women to assume that role for themselves is a lovely message for all viewers, whether they are already fans of the “Nancy Drew” books or not.
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