A bit of an outsider struggling to fit into her new surroundings, Nancy and her pals set out to solve a mystery, make new friends, and establish their place in the community.
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase opens with a decidedly modern Nancy (Sophia Lillis) skateboarding through her new neighborhood. She and her father Carson (Sam Trammell) have just moved to a much smaller town just outside of Chicago to be closer to his family. As the credits roll over a lively opening Nancy’s new bestie George (Zoe Renee) runs through the town asking, “Where’s Nancy Drew? Have you seen Nancy Drew?” Oh, we see her, and this is a fresh, brightly youthful new version that skates to the beat of her own song. Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase is a candy floss confection of unbridled girl power and friendship that will entertain its target audience with a positive message while only triggering minor eye-rolls from everyone else.
“…invites Drew to stay overnight at her place in an expansive Victorian mansion…to help her figure out who is behind the apparent hauntings.”
The emergency at the beginning of the film? Nancy’s friend Bess (Mackenzie Graham) has been humiliated online and won’t come out of her room. It’s small touches like this that are peppered throughout by screenwriters Nina Fiore and John Herrera of The Handmaid’s Tale fame, to update a character created almost a century ago. After addressing this minor issue, Nancy meets Aunt Flora (Linda Lavin) who is at wits end on account of a series of mysterious, ghostly happenings at her home. Flora invites Drew to stay overnight at her place in an expansive Victorian mansion with niece Hannah (Andrea Anders), encouraging the two young girls to help her figure out who is behind the apparent hauntings.
During the course of the unfolding mystery we see time and again how plucky Nancy reserves her reactions in favor of problem-solving and critical thinking. Exploding lightbulbs, floating candles, drawers, and cabinet doors that open and close of their own volition, these eerie objects are no match for our titular sleuth.
However, there are occasions where the dated plot points show their age. For instance when Nancy, Hannah, and Flora discover evidence of a break in, it’s met with enthusiastic curiosity rather than a call to 911. These are minor wrinkles in the aging of the story and, if you are able to let go and enjoy the mystery, they almost stay out of the way of a good time.
“Lillis is a great choice to play an updated Nancy Drew. She has a contagious vitality.”
Lillis is a great choice to play an updated Nancy Drew. She has a contagious vitality. It’s also a foregone conclusion that Theatre and TV vet Lavin as Aunt Flora is going to own what she does. She is a wonderful presence that is kept from stealing every scene she is in by a generous performance that engages the younger performers. Another standout is Graham as Nancy’s friend Bess. She has some comic chops, and I can’t wait to see what she does next. Of course, we also have to give credit to director Katt Shea who holds the tone of the film firmly in the parameters of light and fluffy while sending a clear message of female empowerment.
These are big words for a kids movie to be sure, and no, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase really sets out to do nothing more than entertain for an hour and a half. This is not a crackling mystery, this is not a film of staggering performances, this is a film meant to let us escape and have a little fun watching a strong female character be the one solving the problems for a change. This is innocuous, pop entertainment and, taken on those grounds, it does the job just fine.
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (2019) Directed by Katt Shea. Written by Nina Fiore, John Herrera. Starring Sophia Lillis, Sam Trammell, Andrea Anders, Zoe Renee, Mackenzie Graham, Linda Lavin.
7 out of 10 stars