Film Review: ‘Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase’Variety — Peter Debruge
When it comes to name recognition, few American detectives rank as high as Nancy Drew with audiences, owing to the fact that millions devoured the yellow-spined novels, and no small number of celebs (including executive producer Ellen DeGeneres) went on to credit the character with inspiring them at a young age. As a result, it’s no mystery why so many have tried to develop the character into a proper film or TV franchise — including small-screen attempts by CBS, NCB and the CW in the last few years alone.
In the case of Warner Bros., the studio bought the rights to the character for just $6,000 back in 1937, and has now opted to dust off and remake “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” (one of the character’s earliest and most widely-read novels, first adapted in 1939) from their own library. And so, Nancy’s back, reborn in the form of super-charismatic, red-headed Sophia Lillis as an assertive, red-headed Millennial who embodies the classic character’s best traits — intelligence, independence, and an unerring nose for the truth — while bringing her confidently into the modern world.
That’s more than can be said for Warner’s last attempt, 2007’s square Emma Roberts starrer “Nancy Drew,” in which the character looked like an escapee from a 1940s Catholic girls school. Since Nancy’s always been a role model to young girls, her personality can’t get too wild, but there’s no reason to make her boring in the process. With Lillis in the lead, that’s not likely, since the actress — who stole “It” out from under her younger male co-stars — doesn’t look like a dull goody-goody in the slightest, combining tomboy confidence with a laid-back rocker-chick attitude.
At first, “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” seems to be trying a bit too hard to make her hip, opening with a scene of its namesake skateboarding down the street of fictional small town River Heights. Even without teen musical prodigy Emily Bear singing “More Than Just a Girl” on the soundtrack, it’s obvious that “Poison Ivy” director Katt Shea wants us to know that her new-and-improved Nancy Drew is not to be underestimated — even if most of the characters are constantly doing just that.
Luckily, Nancy has supportive parents and a couple of best friends, Bess (Mackenzie Graham) and George (Zoe Renee), who look on in awe whenever Nancy lays out the logic she uses to puzzle out certain mysteries. But she doesn’t stop there, stepping up to enforce wrongdoing when the situation calls for it. No previous version of Nancy Drew would have reacted to the news that Bess is being picked on at school, by breaking into the boys locker room and rigging one of the showerheads to release a chemical that will turn the bully’s skin Smurf blue, recording the whole stunt and streaming it for everyone to see.
That little act of “restorative justice” (as Nancy calls it) lands her a reprimand from Sheriff Marchbanks (Jay DeVon Johnson) — along with some encouraging looks from hunky Deputy Patrick (Andrew Matthew Welch) — and serves as a solid lesson that even noble acts have consequences when she’s ordered to do community service. Nancy soon discovers that picking up trash at the city park is no fun, and so she engineers a more enticing alternative: assisting an eccentric, elderly shut-in (“Alice” star Linda Lavin as Flora) who spray-paints her lawn bright magenta to match the pink flamingoes.
Flora lives in a historical mansion, Twin Elms, that she believes is haunted, and while that may sound hokey on paper, what Nancy witnesses — a sparking chandelier, kitchen drawers that open and close on their own, and a faceless figure wearing a Satanic pig mask — seems convincing to her, too. “And here I thought my cheese was sliding off the cracker!” exclaims Flora. Still, it takes a special kind of brain to explain what’s behind these freaky phenomena, and that’s where Nancy Drew comes in.
Using a mix of intuition and smarts, Nancy locates a secret lever in Flora’s bookcase which swings aside to reveal … you guessed it, a hidden staircase. By this time in the story, audiences will have figured out the motive — Twin Elms sits on a valuable piece of real estate that greedy developers want for the train they’re planning to build through town — but they won’t be able to guess who’s behind this elaborate attempt to scare Flora into selling, or how the culprits pulled it off. The answer is darker and more dangerous than you might expect.
But here’s the cool thing: The film’s consistently clever script, from empowerment-minded “The Handmaid’s Tale” writers Nina Fiore and John Herrera, isn’t nearly as interested in the mystery as it is in Nancy Drew herself, or in the circle of characters and relationships that surround her. And that’s the smart way to approach such a case, since the movie was clearly intended to be more than a one-off. It’s easy to imagine further installments, so long as they don’t lose Lillis, who’s currently 17. She’s the freshest thing to happen to Nancy Drew in decades, making it clear that casting was the solution that has so often eluded this series in its jump from page to screen in the past.
Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly identified Sophia Lillis’ age. She is, in fact, 17 years old.