Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
NANCY DREW AND THE HIDDEN STAIRCASE
Rated PG, 89 minutes
Directed by: Katt Shea
Rebooting the Nancy Drew series may sound like an antiquated notion since the legendary literary character’s previous cinematic adventure (2007’s NANCY DREW, starring Emma Roberts) didn’t exactly renew audience interest, though it did relatively modest business at the box office. Given that the courageous character herself should feel more at home in this modern feminist-friendly era, it’s a shame it didn’t make more of a bigger wave. At least Warner Brothers saw further potential in a younger-female-skewing franchise and made another go of it. Director Katt Shea’s NANCY DREW AND THE HIDDEN STAIRCASE remains true to the fearless, vivacious spirit author Carolyn Keene (pseudonym of Mildred Wirt Benson) created while spinning a solid, engaging mystery and sweet story about female friendship, loss and family.
The sunny suburbia of River Heights, Illinois is about to be shaken up once sixteen-year-old sleuth Nancy Drew (Sophia Lillis) moves to town. Her recently widowed father, lawyer Carson (Sam Trammell) has taken a job with Nancy’s godfather Nate (Jon Briddell), fighting against a train expansion threatening to destroy the town’s quaint charm and quiet atmosphere. However, not everyone is on their side. Most of the townsfolk aren’t. Nancy learns this quickly, fielding a credible threat from intimidating muscle man, Willie Warton (Jesse C. Boyd).
At the same time the legalities are being bandied about, possible ghost sightings are occurring at the home of long-time resident Flora (Linda Lavin), the great aunt of Nancy’s mean-girl nemesis Helen Corning (Laura Wiggins). Her home, stuffed with ostentatious knick-knacks and garish decor, is haunted by the “Colfax ghost,” a spooky, scary pink pig-faced presence with a penchant for death metal, flickering lights and open kitchen cupboards. Legend says a murder-suicide happened in the house and bodies are buried in the walls. Since the cops can’t do anything, Nancy volunteers to investigate. Is it a haunting or a hoax? Is there a logical explanation for the supernatural phenomena? Is there a connection between the new train line and this haunting?
Shea infuses the picture with a palpable sense of youthful energy. She, along with editor Richard Nord, utilize old-fashioned TV toaster wipes (like spinning clockwise and counter-clockwise during a montage, or in scene transitions), giving it an innovative throwback vibe. She and screenwriters Nina Fiore and John Herrera establish the characters perfectly. The beloved titular heroine’s personality is evident from the first sequence, as Nancy and besties book-smart Bess (Mackenzie Graham) and tech-savvy George (Zoe Renee) work together to humiliate and defeat wealthy cyberbully Derek (Evan Castelloe). Nancy is a trustworthy pal who fights for justice even if it means doing bad things.
There are great lessons those in the target market can learn from this. While picking locks, bullying a bully, and stealing cars (and subsequently driving without a license) aren’t exactly things to emulate, Nancy’s motivations are always selfless. Girl power is perfectly channeled through the friendships and rivalries, and later, through Helen’s Great Aunt Flora, who foreshadows “sometimes you can find your best friend in your worst enemy.” Not only is Nancy quick-witted, intelligent and brave, her besties Bess and George also embody those same qualities. Their shared sisterhood is authentic and sentimental – never schmaltzy. They also lead by example when it comes to mean girl Helen, who experiences the film’s greatest character arc. Plus, though it misses an opportunity to represent the teen girl gaze, it’s a blessing that Nancy’s relationship with Deputy Patrick (Andrew Matthew Welch) isn’t played for romance.
That’s not to say it’s perfect. There are a few troubling elements involved. Kids may not connect the pieces as quickly as the adults, but the logistics of the haunting aren’t all totally rationalized and explained phenomena. Bess says she’s worried about getting acne from eating sugary snacks like maple bars and blueberry cheesecake offered to her. However, the specific ways she frets over the decision, touching her face and pushing at her cheeks, seemingly indicates a greater psychological food issue at play – not necessary a skincare based one. Given how many teens suffer from food-based issues today, it’s surprising this character aspect from the novels made the cut. With all the asinine things dumb teens do these days to stave off boredom (vodka tamponing, the choking game, the cinnamon challenge), it wouldn’t at all be surprising if nutmeg sales rose after the revelation that, in a potent enough concentration, one can get high from inhaling or ingesting it.
Despite its imperfections, this first chronicle sets the stage for a burgeoning franchise. The only mystery now is if the audience will actually turn up so we can get the sequel this film subtly sets up.
NANCY DREW AND THE HIDDEN STAIRCASE opens on March 15.