Vulnerable babies stack up like wobbly dominoes in Hilary Brougher’s wrenching, honorably flawed teenage-pregnancy drama, Stephanie Daley. You can’t escape the beeping plastic infants passed out by a sex-education teacher plugging abstinence to a class full of unimpressed high schoolers. Or the neighbor baby, lovingly dandled after church in a small, upstate New York town by Stephanie (Amber Tamblyn), a wholesome young teenager who will later reject a plea bargain in the murder of her unborn child. Or the baby deer that slams into the windshield of Lydie (Tilda Swinton), a very pregnant forensic psychologist hired by the state prosecutor to investigate Stephanie’s claim that she never knew she was pregnant until the baby was stillborn.
In less capable hands, all this artfully positioned progeny would add up to one hysterically overdetermined TV movie, and even Brougher, who niftily slipped a science-fiction harness onto a Manhattan relationship movie in her well-received 1997 debut feature, The Sticky Fingers of Time, flirts a trifle gratuitously with genre. There is so much to admire and empathize with in Stephanie Daley that it feels almost boorish to quibble about whether the film needs to come packaged as a murder mystery. But really, what’s not to know when a teenager on a school ski trip bleeds onto the slopes and, soon after, a 26-week-old fetus is found in a toilet in the women’s bathroom?
Brougher gave birth to twins between making her two films, and for all its gothic accessorizing — beneath the provincial purity of the snowbound surfaces lies a bloody mess — Stephanie Daley is most persuasive as a realist family drama made by a writer-director whose forte is the accretion of quotidian detail that, as much as any crisis, tells us who her characters are. It is also, with luck, a career-clinching showcase for Tamblyn, daughter of my first-ever movie crush Russ Tamblyn. The younger Tamblyn, already a star in television’s Joan of Arcadia, demonstrates superbly why it’s often not the wanton hussies but the unformed good girls who are at greatest sexual risk when grownups have checked themselves out of the picture. With her chubby cheeks and trusting dark eyes, Stephanie looks newly hatched, as vulnerable as a baby herself, and what is at once touching and frightening about her is the way, like so many kids burdened with adult problems, she shuttles between clamped-down terror and the flat denial that allows her to horse around with her best friend (the excellent Halley Feiffer) one minute and stalk the house of the boy who essentially raped her the next. The most horrifying scene in the movie is not the graphic, attention-grabbing “birth” of the baby, but this callow youth’s insidious, whispering seduction of a virgin who is palpably in over her head.
If that makes Stephanie Daley sound like an issue movie, it’s not, at least not as long as it focuses on the rich insufficiencies of Stephanie’s world. Brougher is very good at opening up the seemingly peripheral tears in the fabric of everyday routines that widen under pressure from sudden crisis. Dramatically speaking, though, Stephanie’s dilemma doesn’t profit from the glib parallels that blare from the movie’s subplot, in which Stephanie’s interrogator slogs through her own fears about her second pregnancy and the waves the first has made in her marriage to an inexpressive husband (Timothy Hutton). Swinton, that exquisite hamster, turns in her usual intelligent, if constricted performance, but Lydie’s guilt is too amorphous, too underdeveloped to get a bead on, let alone identify with. To hold Lydie’s transient unhappiness up as a mirror to Stephanie’s is to risk moral relativism in the service of the structural tidiness that is the occupational hazard of the genre picture. Stephanie’s complicated suffering speaks eloquently for itself, but at the end Brougher throws it away. Nothing in the neat epiphany bestowed on this confused young woman suggests the difficult future of any girl in her situation — that she will have to make a space for what has happened to her, and what she has done, for the rest of her life.
STEPHANIE DALEY | Written and directed by HILARY BROUGHER | Produced by SEAN COSTELLO, LYNETTE HOWELL, SAMARA KOFFLER and JEN ROSKIND | Released by Regent Releasing | Regent Showcase and One Colorado Cinemas
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Stephanie Daley Trailer