Even before the opening credits on Katt Shea’s “Sophia Lillis has the kind of plucky enthusiasm that befits any iteration of the character, she’s expected to perform inside an awkward bubble that wavers between classic charm and strange modern trappings.” wrap up, the film’s bent toward modernizing its heroine, a teenage super-sleuth approaching her ninetieth year in existence, is clear. This Nancy Drew is a ripped jeans-wearing, longboard-riding, smartphone-toting young woman, and she’s even got a peppy theme song that kind of says it all in its own title: “More Than Just a Girl.” Nancy, of course, has always been more than just a girl — that’s kind of the whole deal with Nancy Drew — but over a decade removed from her last big screen outing, she’s a girl in need of a little jazzing up. That doesn’t mean it goes down easily, and while star
First, there’s the outwardly modern stuff. Mostly, there’s the internet, which exists in “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” primarily as a way to telegraph that this film is indeed set in 2019, even if little else does. Before Nancy and her pals can set about the film’s eponymous mystery — though said hidden staircase appears nearly an hour into the film, and is mostly stuck playing second fiddle to a hidden doorway and a hidden fuse box — they need to do battle with some good, old-fashioned bullies. Best pal Bess (a bubbly Mackenzie Graham) has been the victim of cyberbullying (“And now it’s gone viral!,” one character yells about the undercooked piece of plot), and Nancy and other best pal George (a sardonic Zoe Renee) are instantly ready to enact some public shaming of the offender, resident rich kid Derek (Evan Castelloe).
The trio cook up a plan to go after the one thing that means the most to him: “his social media presence.” Things can only get better from there, because while Nancy is as capable and quick as ever, watching her shuffle around a high school gym dressed as a janitor in order to best a knucklehead who has been literally illegally mean to one of her best friends seems as thin and silly as it sounds. Nancy Drew is better than this and, in fits and starts, “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” is too. (And, it seems important to note, Lillis is a shining star in every situation that “Hidden Staircase” throws her way; choosing the “It” breakout as the newest on-screen Nancy Drew is the smartest choice that went into the entire film.)
Loosely based on the 1939 novel “The Hidden Staircase,” screenwriters Nina Fiore and John Herrera have retrofitted a classic Nancy Drew story with some contemporary snap. Through a series of twists and coincidences — there are always twists and coincidences in these stories, and not all of them are fully reconciled in Shea’s film, either narratively or emotionally — Nancy gets mixed up with natty older neighbor Flora (Linda Lavin) and her devoted great-niece Helen (Laura Wiggins, playing a character meant to be Nancy’s age, though the actress is over a decade older than her co-star, a rare bit of age-inappropriate casting that distracts). Flora is convinced her sprawling old mansion is haunted, and though Helen isn’t a Nancy fan (turns out, she’s Derek’s girlfriend), she’s willing to put aside her feud with the spunky sleuth if it helps crack a mystery that seems supernatural.
There’s not much Nancy won’t take on, and it’s that spirit that keeps “Hidden Staircase” pushing along through hammy, exposition-laden dialogue (meeting Nancy’s aunt involves an oddly protracted scene in which both Nancy and Carson need to repeatedly affirm their relationship to her) and baffling lighting and framing choices. But Nancy knows how to keep a mystery moving, and as the film’s surprises unfold, the joy of seeing something reveal itself through ingenuity and respect for people (well, good people, not the baddie villains Nancy has to go up against) proves to be timeless. It’s telling that none of Nancy’s biggest revelations come care of internet snooping or using an iPad to trip someone or whatever other silly, modern-ish moves the film’s first act seemed to be going all-in on.
It’s a relief, but it can’t entirely obscure other uncomfortable portions of the film that are centered on the unstoppable encroachment of, well, the real world. That a 2019 Nancy Drew would have an Instagram account — and friends who have Instagram accounts, friends who also want to talk about those Instagram accounts — isn’t at all surprising, but the film’s shoehorning into contemporary conversation goes far beyond just winky social media mentions. That’s where things really do go awry, because while the kind of pep and intelligence and grit that has always been part of Nancy’s makeup hasn’t changed, the world has. Chills and thrills that might have felt less horrific (or perhaps only possible within the confines of entertainment) in the ’30s when author Edward Stratemeyer created Nancy Drew are tougher to watch now. When bad guys with guns come after Nancy and her pals, it doesn’t feel like something suitable for the younger set. And when a grown man nearly runs Nancy down in a dark alley, something far more sinister lurks just outside of the frame.
The messages imparted by Nancy Drew are as necessary as ever — who wouldn’t want to see a film that values smarty-pants sleuthing, a generous dash of morality, and the help of your friends above anything else? And with a neat, happy ending to boot? — but even “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” can’t provide a full measure of escapism. Making Nancy Drew a modern girl is a no-brainer, but figuring out where exactly she fits into a very different world than the one she was created for, that’s an entirely different case altogether.
“Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” is in theaters now.