The character of Nancy Drew, a teenaged girl detective, was first introduced in a series of books in 1930, and she was played on screen in that era by Bonita Granville in B-movies that coarsened and diluted the dynamic force that Nancy had on the page. Many prominent women who grew up in the mid-20th century have said that Nancy was an inspiration to them because she was ultra-confident, smart, and very active; she is often shown holding a flashlight on the cover of the books and looking bold and un-afraid.
The Drew books were written by a variety of ghostwriters under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, and of course there have been adjustments made over time to bring her up to date, not always for the better. In the 1980s, Drew was sometimes drawn on the book covers in a sexualized way, and she became more interested in boys while she was solving crimes.
Andrew Fleming made a “Nancy Drew” film in 2007 that starred Emma Roberts, but its mixed reception meant that there were no sequels to it. And now there’s “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase,” which goes back to the original source material, “The Hidden Staircase,” the second volume in the series in 1930 and the reported favorite of Mildred Wirt Benson, who wrote the first series of books.
Redheaded star Sophia Lillis, who made an impression in “It,” is holding a flashlight on the poster for this film, a sign that the creators are interested in returning to the forcefulness of the original character. (Ellen DeGeneres is one of the film’s producers.) Lillis’ Nancy is first seen skateboarding in slight slow motion under the credits, gracefully moving through her town to a song on the soundtrack that has the insistent refrain, “I’m more than just a girl.” This sequence is smoothly edited by Richard Nord (“The Fugitive”) and composed by cinematographer Edd Lukas (“David Crosby: Remember My Name”), but shots later in the film involving several people in the frame together can sometimes look a little unbalanced.
Director Katt Shea, who helmed the camp classic Drew Barrymore vehicle “Poison Ivy,” and writers Nina Fiore and John Herrera (Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”) position this Nancy as very social media-savvy and loyal to her female friends. When Bess (Mackenzie Graham) is humiliated online by a boy named Derek (Evan Castelloe, “Sharp Objects”), Nancy takes revenge on him by putting dye in the shower where he works out, turning his skin blue.
This instinct for vengeance on Nancy’s part is discouraged by her father Carson Drew (Sam Trammell), a very decent, crusading lawyer and recent widower. Most of the early Nancy Drew books had her losing her mother at a fairly young age, but this picture makes her grief recent. The theme of female vengeance for male wrongdoing is successfully developed throughout “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase,” and this feels persuasive and very of-the-moment.
More questionable is the sex-positive feminism here. Linda Lavin plays the juicy role of Flora, an older woman whose house might be haunted. “I have stared down communism, and my choice of cocktail is none of your business!” Flora cries to a law enforcement officer who is skeptical about her claims that ghosts inhabit her house. This odd back-story non sequitur is one of the things that leads Nancy to befriend Flora, who used to be a burlesque dancer named Strawberry Deville. When Flora wonders if she has had too many lovers recently, Nancy winningly cries, “Never!”
But Bess, who loves chemistry, is pushed to put on make-up, style her hair, and wear tight and revealing clothing all so that she can feel “empowered,” and this is more difficult to take. Does a girl’s confidence always have to depend on feeling attractive and sexy as a foundation? Couldn’t Bess find happiness and personal fulfillment without this makeover?
“Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” is clearly made by people who have thought through the material and tried to make it enjoyable and palatable, but the set-up at the end for further sequels feels a little too hopeful. Nancy Drew has always been popular in book form, but she has never quite had staying power whenever she has been put on screen. The reasons for this are far from clear, but it’s notable that this Nancy has to be given a flashlight by a hunky police officer who always has her back, whereas the Nancy Drew who inspired so many women is someone who wouldn’t and shouldn’t need that kind of help.