Screened at Sundance in 2006, writer/director Hilary Brougher’s Stephanie Daley stars Amber Tamblyn (TV’s Joan of Arcadia) as the 16-year-old title character. We first meet Stephanie on a class ski trip just as she collapses, bleeding in the snow. When her baby is found dead in a nearby restroom, she claims she didn’t know she was pregnant and that the baby was stillborn. Stephanie, who becomes known in the media as “The Ski Mom”, is charged with murder and assigned to forensic psychologist Lydie Crane played by Tilda Swinton (Orlando, Thumbsucker). It’s Crane’s job to determine Stephanie’s mental state. Did she do it and was her act one of pathological denial or one of choice?
This is the question that drives the story as the film moves back and forth between flashbacks that tell of the events leading up to Stephanie’s ski trip; therapy sessions where she’s interrogated by Lydie Crane; and glimpses into Crane’s present day life. We learn that Stephanie is a fairly typical 16-year-old, an only child from a small town in New York. She plays the flute, goes to school and attends church with her parents who seem kind, but distant. She’s shy, somewhat awkward and naive but she seems to be a good kid.
Lydie, coincidentally, is pregnant herself and it’s not clear how enthusiastic she is about being a mother. She’s also still working through problems with her husband (Timothy Hutton) stemming from an earlier miscarriage.
There are some nicely observed scenes in the film that seem real, like when Stephanie goes to a party with friends and she falls victim to the first older boy who shows interest in her. The birth scene also is horrifying, shown mostly in close-up on Stephanie’s grimace as she tries to keep herself from screaming out loud. These scenes have the gravity realism to them and they’re very effective. Unfortunately there are also a few moments of heavy-handedness when the film seems to be trying to make a point. There’s an obvious swipe at the inadequacy of sexual education as a teacher pointedly explains she’s required to teach abstinence. Another scene shows a teacher lecturing a student that great literature is about man and God and that “nothing else really matters.” You can see the box Stephanie is being forced into, but there’s a lack of delicacy in these scenes that stands out compared to the subtlety of the rest of the film.
Swinton is terrific as always, but it’s Tamblyn who really stands out here. She’s in her 20s but she plays a convincing 16 year-old, perfectly conveying the awkwardness of a shy girl of that age without resulting to mannerisms. There’s an ambiguity to Stephanie as well. Throughout the film you’re not quite sure whether she’s evil or innocent and Tamblyn never tips her hand.
In the end, I admired the film. With the controversial subject matter, it could easily have devolved into a Lifetime Movie of the Week, but it always remained above that level. It presents many sides of a difficult subject, showing the seriousness of having children without a lot of preaching. Unfortunately, I never really found an ‘in’ to the material. Perhaps if I was a parent or a teenager myself it would’ve moved me more deeply. Even so, I look forward to more from both Amber Tamblyn and writer/director Hilary Brougher.
Stephanie Daley: USA 2006. Writen and Directed by Hilary Brougher. Starring Amber Tamblyn, Tilda Swinton and Timothy Hutton. 1 hour 31 minutes. MPAA Rating: R for disturbing material involving teen pregnancy, sexual content and language. 3 stars (out of 5)