×

Film Review: ‘Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase’

'It' star Sophia Lillis brings a fresh dimension to one of American literature's best-loved detectives in a version that updates Nancy Drew just enough for a new generation.

Director:
Katt Shea
With:
Sophia Lillis, Linda Lavin, Sam Trammell
Release Date:
Mar 15, 2019

Official Site: https://www.warnerbros.com/movies/nancy-drew-and-hidden-staircase

When it comes to name recognition, few American detectives rank as high as Nancy Drew with audiences, owing to the fact that millions devoured the yellow-spined novels, and no small number of celebs (including executive producer Ellen DeGeneres) went on to credit the character with inspiring them at a young age. As a result, it’s no mystery why so many have tried to develop the character into a proper film or TV franchise — including small-screen attempts by CBS, NCB and The CW in the last few years alone.

In the case of Warner Bros., the studio bought the rights to the character for just $6,000 back in 1937, and has opted to dust off and remake “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” (one of the character’s earliest and most widely read novels, first adapted in 1939) from its own library. And so, Nancy’s back, reborn in the form of super-charismatic, redheaded Sophia Lillis as an assertive, redheaded millennial who embodies the classic character’s best traits — intelligence, independence, and an unerring nose for the truth — while bringing her confidently into the modern world.

That’s more than can be said for Warner’s last attempt, 2007’s square Emma Roberts starrer “Nancy Drew,” in which the character looked like an escapee from a 1940s Catholic girls’ school. Since Nancy’s always been a role model to young girls, her personality can’t get too wild, but there’s no reason to make her boring in the process. With Lillis in the lead, that’s not likely, since the actress — who stole “It” out from under her younger male co-stars — doesn’t look like a dull goody-goody in the slightest, combining tomboy confidence with a laid-back rocker-chick attitude.

At first, “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” seems to be trying a bit too hard to make her hip, opening with a scene of its namesake skateboarding down the street of fictional small town River Heights. Even without teen musical prodigy Emily Bear singing “More Than Just a Girl” on the soundtrack, it’s obvious that “Poison Ivy” director Katt Shea wants us to know that there’s no underestimating her new-and-improved Nancy Drew — even if most of the characters are constantly doing just that.

Luckily, Nancy has supportive parents and a couple of best friends, Bess (Mackenzie Graham) and George (Zoe Renee), who look on in awe whenever she lays out the logic she uses to puzzle out certain mysteries. But she doesn’t stop there, stepping up to enforce wrongdoing when the situation calls for it. No previous version of Nancy Drew would have reacted to the news that Bess is being picked on at school by breaking into the boys’ locker room and rigging a showerhead to release a chemical that will turn the bully’s skin Smurf blue, recording the whole stunt and streaming it for everyone to see.

That little act of “restorative justice” (as Nancy calls it) lands her a reprimand from Sheriff Marchbanks (Jay DeVon Johnson) — along with some encouraging looks from hunky Deputy Patrick (Andrew Matthew Welch) — and serves as a solid lesson that even noble acts have consequences when she’s ordered to do community service. Nancy soon discovers that picking up trash at the city park is no fun, and so she engineers a more enticing alternative: assisting an eccentric, elderly shut-in (“Alice” star Linda Lavin as Flora) who spray-paints her lawn bright magenta to match the pink flamingos.

Flora lives in a historical mansion, Twin Elms, that she believes is haunted, and while that may sound hokey on paper, what Nancy witnesses — a sparking chandelier, kitchen drawers that open and close on their own, and a faceless figure wearing a satanic pig mask — seems convincing to her too. “And here I thought my cheese was sliding off the cracker!” exclaims Flora. Still, it takes a special kind of brain to explain what’s behind these freaky phenomena, and that’s where Nancy Drew comes in.

Using a mix of intuition and smarts, Nancy locates a secret lever in Flora’s bookcase that swings aside to reveal … you guessed it, a hidden staircase. By this time in the story, audiences will have figured out the motive — Twin Elms sits on a valuable piece of real estate that greedy developers want for the train they’re planning to build through town — but they won’t be able to guess who’s behind this elaborate attempt to scare Flora into selling, or how the culprits pulled it off. The answer is darker and more dangerous than you might expect.

But here’s the cool thing: The film’s consistently clever script, from empowerment-minded “The Handmaid’s Tale” writers Nina Fiore and John Herrera, isn’t nearly as interested in the mystery as it is in Nancy Drew, or in the circle of characters and relationships that surround her. And that’s the smart way to approach such a case, since the movie was plainly intended to be more than a one-off. It’s easy to imagine further installments, so long as they don’t lose Lillis, who’s currently 17. She’s the freshest thing to happen to Nancy Drew in decades, making it clear that casting was the solution that has so often eluded this series in its jump from page to screen.

Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly identified Sophia Lillis’ age. She is 17 years old.

Film Review: 'Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase'

Reviewed online, March 7, 2019. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 89 MIN.

Production: A Warner Bros. Pictures release and presentation of a Very Good, Red 56 production. Producers: Jeff Kleeman, Chip Diggins. Executive producers: Ellen DeGeneres, Wendy S. Williams. Co-producer: Rachel Abarbanell.

Crew: Director: Katt Shea. Screenplay: Nina Fiore, John Herrera. Camera (color, widescreen): Edd Lukas. Editor: Richard Nord. Music: Sherri Chung.

With: Sophia Lillis, Linda Lavin, Sam Trammell

Music By: , Andrea Anders, Sam Trammell, Mackenzie Graham, Zoe Renee, Evan Castelloe, Jay DeVon Johnson, Andrew Matthew Welch, Jesse C. Boyd.

More Film

  • Beware of Children

    First Trailer Released for Venice Days Entry 'Beware of Children' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Variety has been given exclusive access to the first trailer for Dag Johan Haugeruds’ politically and socially charged drama “Beware of Children,” which premieres as part of the Venice Film Festival’s Venice Days section. The pic, which is being sold at Venice by Picture Tree Intl., features the dramatic aftermath of a tragic incident in [...]

  • The Tower animated film about Palestinians

    ‘The Tower’ Animation Wins Japan's Skip City Festival

    “The Tower,” Mats Grorud’s animation about the plight of the Palestinians, as viewed through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl in Beirut, won the grand prize in the international competition at the 16th edition of Skip City International D-Cinema Festival. The film also scooped the section’s audience award. The Skip City festival, which launched in [...]

  • For web story

    Transgender Immigrant Pic 'Lingua Franca,' Thriller 'Only Beasts' to Bow at Venice Days

    New York-based Filipina filmmaker Isabel Sandoval’s “Lingua Franca,” about a transgender immigrant, is among 11 competition entries, all world premieres, that will launch from the Venice Film Festival’s independently run Venice Days section. The only U.S. entry set to compete in the section modeled on Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, “Lingua Franca” is Sandoval’s third work. It [...]

  • Female-Led and LGBTQ Narratives Win Big

    Female-Led and LGBTQ Narratives Win Big At Durban FilmMart Awards

    DURBAN–Female-driven narratives and daring portraits of queer culture around the continent were the big winners at this year’s Durban FilmMart (DFM), the industry program of the Durban Intl. Film Festival, which handed out awards at a ceremony Monday night at the Southern Sun Maharani Hotel. Among the prize-winners were the story of a Zimbabwean woman [...]

  • Oscar Nominations Reactions Phyllis Nagy

    Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy Runs for Writers Guild Presidency, Citing Agency Stalemate

    Oscar-nominated screenwriter Phyllis Nagy is challenging Writers Guild of America West’s incumbent president David Goodman, citing his handling of the bitter stalemate between the WGA and Hollywood agents. Nagy announced her candidacy online Monday night, a day before the deadline for filing. She made the announcement  in a private online group as part of Writers for [...]

  • Klaudia-Reynicke

    Locarno: Summerside Picks Up ‘Love Me Tender’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Rome-based Summerside Intl. has acquired international sales rights to Klaudia Reynicke’s “Love Me Tender.” The second feature from Peru-born and Switzerland-based filmmaker will receive its world premiere at the Locarno Festival in its Filmmakers of the Present competition, which focuses on first and second features. Summerside Intl. is the world sales agent, excluding and Lichtenstein [...]

  • Elsie Fisher and Bo Burnham2019 Writers

    Writers Guild Announces 2020 Awards Show Date

    The 72nd Annual Writers Guild Awards will take place in coinciding ceremonies in Los Angeles at the Beverly Hilton and the Edison Ballroom in New York on Feb. 1, the Writers Guild of America announced. The WGA will begin voting in November and will reveal this year’s TV nominees Dec. 5 and film Jan. 6. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content