Film Review – Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (2019)
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase reintroduces us to the red-headed sleuth in a fast paced, high energy film that will appeal to a younger crowd. Sophia Lillis comes on the scene with a charismatic, bright-eyed portrayal of the spirited detective. But the movie has some snags that may leave some folks nostalgic for the Nancy Drew of old.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Kat Shea
Written By: Nina Fiore
Produced By: Ellen DeGeneres, Jeff Kleeman, and Chip Diggins
Starring: Sophia Lillis, Zoe Renee, Mackenzie Graham, Laura Wiggins, Sam Trammell, and Linda Lavin
A 16 year old Nancy Drew (Lillis) is restless after her dad, Lawyer Carson Drew (Trammell) , moved them from Chicago to River Heights after his wife’s death. To relieve her boredom, Nancy gets involved in high school pranks until she gets the chance to investigate a haunted house. Alongside popular mean girl, Helen (Wiggins), Nancy resolves to get to the bottom of the seemingly supernatural happenings at the house.
Bess Marvin and George Fayne are Completely New People
I don’t think it’s over the top to say that this movie takes Bess and George and morphs them into new characters entirely. Aside from having a concern about pastries giving her acne, Bess Marvin isn’t quite as pert and concerned with fashion and beauty as the original one. Instead, we get a Bess who’s a quirky chemistry lover. And since she’s doesn’t appear in the film very much, that’s all we can really infer about her character.
George is equally distant from her origins. Even though it’s expected that the characters will be modernized, they should at least retain some of their iconic traits. George traditionally enjoys risk taking, is direct and laconic, and somewhat clumsy. These traits, which differ greatly from her cousin Bess, make for more entertaining conflict between the girls. The bickering and banter between the cousins is absent in The Hidden Staircase, and considering it’s a source of comic relief in both the books and the interactive games, it’s a wonder they didn’t include it in the film.
A New Take on Nancy Drew
Viewers who are familiar with the earliest books will probably notice that Nancy’s persona, from her skateboard and ripped jeans on up to her loose plaid shirt, falls more in line with descriptions of the tomboyish George Fayne than of Nancy. This Nancy also shows more irreverence and less discretion in her snooping habits than the detective from The Hidden Staircase of 1930.
But is this change such a bad thing?
For a long time, Nancy Drew has stood as the feminine ideal between Bess and George. She was never too boyish or so girlish as to be timid and lacking bravery. Maybe propounding this ideal of the perfect woman should change within the Nancy Drew canon. Instead of conforming to the typical type for the character, the new film boldly puts aside the gender norms of the past and gives us a character that’s equally appealing, but less conventionally feminine. This makes Nancy a more relatable character for girls who don’t feel that they completely fit in with their ascribed gender.
The Film Is Fit For a 6th Grade Audience, or Younger
Though the film has strong points, from the opening scene I felt I was watching a film that was meant for a significantly younger audience than myself. Admittedly, I’m not a teenager, but I wondered if the film was geared toward kids younger than 18 or even 16. This isn’t necessarily a problem if that’s what the filmmakers were going for, and Nancy Drew does has a reputation for being very family friendly, and therefore, any film adaptations have avoided too much intensity.
Just the same, prior film adaptations, such as the ‘95 Canadian version and the TV series from the ‘70s, never felt too young for adults or too mature for younger kids. Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase departs from this because it has a strong Disney Channel vibe at times, especially at the beginning when Nancy plays a silly and unbelievable prank on a jock who had played an equally Kindergartenish prank on Bess.
In contrast, the first scene in the book doesn’t waste any time and pulls us straight into the mystery of the haunted house and Carson Drew’s predicament. First, Helen, who is Nancy’s friend in the story, calls the Drew residence to hook Nancy onto the case of the haunting. Soon after, a man comes to the door to warn Nancy that her father is in danger.
Where’s the More Independent Nancy From the Books?
Another important difference between the books and the recent movies is that Nancy is 18 in most of the books; an age where she’s free and not bound to school. All of the recent film adaptations have placed Nancy in her junior year of high school, presumably so she’ll be more relatable to the target audience. But this confines her to River Heights and her school and thus removes some of the independence the itinerant detective had in the books.
Sophia Lillis portrays the character so well that it’s a shame she was cast in a film below her potential. In a more true to the original movie, Lillis’ Nancy would be a refreshing modernization of the Carolyn Keene books of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.
In future Nancy Drew films, I would like to see the vibrant characters of Bess and George return and for Nancy to be placed in a more mature setting that would appeal to wide variety of audiences.
Thank you for reading! What did you think of Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase? Comment down below!
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