October 15, 2007

Stephanie Daley: Neither lurid nor a polemic


Reviewer: Erin Donovan
Rating (out of 5): ****

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Judith Warner wrote, after attending a recent screening of the friendship/revenge/road film Thelma and Louise (a screening hosted by Sen. Susan Collins R-MN and Rep. Jane Harman D-CA... huh?) that the 1991 film's portrayal of the sexual politick already seemed incredibly dated. She noted that the interim changes haven't actually been useful evolutions, but merely the development of many, many shades of gray.

With Stephanie Daley, writer/director Hilary Brougher achieves a mighty feat of making a film about religious education, child abandonment, miscarriage, infidelity and teenage sexuality that's neither lurid nor a polemic. And even with one character fighting for her life there are no Oscar-baiting monologues of hysteria (in fact, the most powerful scene in the film is completely silent). Like Brougher's debut film, Sticky Fingers of Time, Stephanie Daley uses a fragmented narrative to show how the interactions of two people stuck in a morass of denial inspires the other to lift themselves out of their stasis.

The film starts out as a procedural, Lydie Crane (Tilda Swinton of Teknolust, Orlando) is a visibly pregnant criminal psychologist who's been dispatched to determine whether or not 16-year-old Stephanie Daley (Amber Tamblyn, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) was mentally competent when she delivered her baby in a restroom and left it in a trashcan while on a school ski trip. We learn in a series of flashbacks that Stephanie was "gray raped" at a party and became pregnant but was too frightened to tell anyone. Her parents are emotionally absent and her school's sexual education lecture would seem comical if it weren't in all liklihood culled from real materials being used across this country. When a student asks a question about condoms the teacher blithely states, "According to the school board, abstinence is the only safe sex." Lydie, still grieving from a stillborn birth three months prior, is now coping with all the anxieties of impending parenthood along with the fear that her husband is being unfaithful.

Despite the dramatics of the story, Stephanie Daley (the recipient of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival) is well-balanced by Tamblyn and Swinton's thoughtful performances and gracefully avoids falling into any traps that could make the film either a champion of or an antagonist to people's political beliefs. It's a story that is sad, messy and even has a few moments of joy; in other words it is refreshingly human.

See also: Agnes of God, Jindabyne, Eve and the Fire Horse, The Education of Shelby Knox, Coal Miner's Daughter, Saved!

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Posted by cphillips at October 15, 2007 8:50 AM