A ripped-from-the-headlines premise — a teenage mother accused of killing her newborn — provides the catalyst for a taut, provocative, sometimes overreaching but always absorbing thriller in “Stephanie Daley,” the highly accomplished sophomore feature from writer-director Hilary Brougher. Built around knockout lead performances by Tilda Swinton and erstwhile “Joan of Arcadia” star Amber Tamblyn, pic brushes up against hot-button issues from teen pregnancy and sex ed to the separation of church and state, without turning into an “issues” picture. But overriding bleak tone and absence of easy answers suggest a commercial forecast as forbidding as the pic’s snowbound upstate New York setting.
In a gripping opening, 16-year-old Stephanie (Tamblyn) tracks through the snow during a high school ski club retreat, leaving a trail of blood. She collapses and is rushed to the hospital, where it is discovered she has just given birth. Claiming she didn’t know she was pregnant and that the baby was stillborn, Stephanie is nonetheless brought up on murder charges when the physical evidence reveals the baby (discovered in a toilet) had water in its lungs and toilet paper stuffed down its throat.
Five months later, on the verge of a trial, Stephanie is scheduled for examination by forensic psychologist Lydie Crane (Swinton), who recently endured a stillbirth herself and is pregnant again. A series of sessions between therapist and patient follows, during which Stephanie’s past — or, at least, her version of it — unfolds in flashback.
But if the basic premise of “Stephanie Daley” seems more conventional than that of Brougher’s debut feature, the 1997 nuclear paranoia/time travel drama “The Sticky Fingers of Time,” the variety of tones she creates and sustains over the course of this beguiling work, from woman’s social melodrama to Cronenbergian horror, is no less impressive.
The flashbacks, which show Stephanie’s high-school life and the party at which she loses her virginity, recall “The Last Picture Show” in their awkward adolescent sexuality. The scenes between Stephanie and her parents are uncommonly truthful in their feel for that teenage tug-of-war between freedom and supervision. And the ultimate depiction of Stephanie’s bathroom-stall labor is as unnerving a cinematic set piece as anything this side of a Michael Haneke movie — all the more so for Brougher’s refusal to tell us how we should feel toward Stephanie.
“Stephanie Daley” is also very much Lydie’s story, and the film is at its strongest when it concentrates on the odd tension that develops between this mature woman who has strived so desperately to have a baby and this naive young adult who has, seemingly without care, tossed one away. Despite her composed exterior, Lydie’s own life seems headed toward crisis: Her architect husband (an excellent Timothy Hutton) may be having an affair, while her interactions with Stephanie dredge up unresolved feelings about her own dead child.
Brougher never allows the pic to devolve into a simplistic pro-choice versus pro-life debate, or for Stephanie and Lydie to move toward some teary-eyed common ground. Rather, she keeps her focus on the myriad physical, emotional and psychological ramifications of bringing a child into the world.
However, at the close of the pic’s brisk 91-minute running time, other potentially intriguing ideas raised by the film — notably, a recurring discussion about religious faith and Stephanie’s contention that her pregnancy may have been a punishment from God — remain only superficially explored.
Brougher has developed a more confident visual style in the decade since “Sticky Fingers,” executing scenes with a cool, at times almost clinical precision and drawing extraordinary work from her actors. Like her characters in “The Deep End” and “Thumbsucker,” this role affords Swinton a welcome opportunity to play against the kind of otherworldly exotic in which she’s been frequently typecast, and also to appear more fragile and vulnerable onscreen than she has ever allowed herself.
Tamblyn, meanwhile, is a quiet revelation in a role that is like a high-wire act performed over the chasm between childhood innocence and adult responsibility.
Tech credits are modest, but solid, with David Morrison’s HD-to-35mm lensing segueing nicely from muted grays and browns in present day scenes to warm, saturated hues in the flashbacks. Minimalist musical score by David Mansfield (“Heaven’s Gate,” “Transamerica”) is also a plus.