A brave tale of motherhood and marriage
Stephanie Daley, you're no Joan of Arcadia.
Not to be mean, but you're even too glum to hang with Tibby from "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants."
At 23, it seems that Amber Tamblyn has finally graduated from playing only wisecracking teens. In "Stephanie Daley" she portrays a teen who's too depleted and numb to crack wise (much), which at least represents a dramatic progression for the actress if not a chronological one. The important thing is: she's tremendous.
As the title character in Hilary Brougher's long-overdue second feature (she also wrote and directed 1997's "The Sticky Fingers of Time"), Tamblyn is a 16-year-old ripped from adolescence and pilloried for allegedly killing the infant she secretly gave birth to during a high school ski trip. Stephanie claims not to have known she was pregnant, and she insists the baby was stillborn. But there is evidence suggesting something far less innocent, and a forensic psychologist named Lydie (Tilda Swinton) is assigned to evaluate the darker side of this ordinary-looking girl now notoriously known as "the ski mom."
As movie luck would have it, Lydie is pregnant herself, recovering from a recent stillbirth of her own, and questioning the strength of her marriage to an architect played by Timothy Hutton. She wonders about blame and denial and choice, which she inevitably learns aren't so easy to define outside a courtroom.
It might read like a tabloid TV vehicle for Melissa Gilbert and Hilary Duff, but it doesn't view that way. And much of the credit goes to Tamblyn, Swinton (who also executive produced), and Brougher in particular.
The writer-director's sensitive but keen script (winner of a screenwriting award at Sundance) is weighty and literate without feeling overly crafted. When Lydie becomes too distracted during a kitchen scene to notice she's cut herself and is bleeding into the lasagna, a friend remarks, "I don't think anyone's ever brought a kid into this world without losing their mind a little." And all the parents in the audience nod.
Shot in natural light that can sometimes leave you groping for clarity along with the characters, Brougher's movie feels true to everyday life despite its sensational story line. The filmmaker understands the potential impact of a single mundane detail: Much of Swinton's screen time is spent peeing, which puts it among the most honest portraits of pregnancy in the history of cinema.
Other things aren't rendered as vividly, including Hutton's character and Stephanie's crumbling family. Intentionally, even the pitch-black scene where Stephanie becomes pregnant presents more questions than answers. Do we buy her account of a one-time, interrupted encounter at a party? Was it really rape?
Tamblyn's surprisingly measured performance commands attention -- especially in interrogations where she nearly flat lines emotionally, and in a restrained handling of that gut-wrenching part of the film where she gives birth in the stall of a public restroom. Brougher could have left it there, but she's a brave filmmaker. Stephanie's story doesn't just trail off to the land of ambiguous flashbacks; Brougher takes a stand, ending with a disclosure that may make viewers squirm, tear up, seethe, or all of the above.
Even if Tamblyn fans are more comfortable with her upcoming "Sisterhood" sequel, "Stephanie Daley" announces she's a young actress to watch. And if she keeps playing with moviemakers like this, we'll eventually be watching her collect an Oscar.