Director/Screenwriter: Hilary Brougher
Executive Producers: Doug Dey, Tilda Swinton
Producers: Sean Costello, Samara Koffler, Lynette Howell, Jen Roskind
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Amber Tamblyn, Timothy Hutton, Denis O'Hare
Sony HD Cam
U.S.A., 2005, 90 min.
*"The facts in the case are well known," states Lydie Crane, the psychologist hired by the prosecutor in Stephanie Daley's competency hearing. "We have a girl, a mountain, a bathroom. This case is not about facts; it's about what we believe." What we are led to believe is complicated and tragic. What we come to learn is that Stephanie denies killing her baby, and Lydie, though pregnant, is still suffering residual grief from her own recently stillborn child.
At the core of Hilary Brougher's beautifully executed drama are two dynamic, yet emotionally frail, women, played expertly by two amazing actresses, Tilda Swinton and Amber Tamblyn. Swinton works two sides of this emotional roller coaster; as Lydie, she must reach Stephanie by finding the repressed feelings inside herself. Brougher's well-orchestrated script finds and pulls the right strings, making this film work. The acting throughout is top notch, including Timothy Hutton as the husband kept at bay, and Denis O'Hare as the friend and confidant. The sensationalism of the events in Stephanie Daley grabs you, but it's the journey each character must choose that leaves the lasting impression.
*Summary by John Cooper, SUNDANCE Film Programmer
This film succeeds entirely on the performances of its two leads, Tilda Swinton and Amber Tamblyn. There are some distracting problems with the script, confusing time shifts, unnecessary dream sequences, and illogical character choices. Through these bumps along the road, the performances of these two women hold the film together and make it a deeply affecting and emotional experience. I wasn't surprised to see another excellent performance by Tilda Swinton, she always brings a sense of gravity and empathy to her roles, though she is far too often stereotyped as the villain in most of her films. Her character, Lydie, is a complicated and not altogether lovable creature. She can be selfish and mean, but also loving and empathetic. Lydie is pregnant and forced to deal, not only with this abortion case concerning Amber Tamblyn's character, Stephanie, but also with the memories of her own miscarriage and the questionable loyalty of her husband. At no point does Tilda Swinton betray the complexity of this character, showing her strength of character, warts and all.
Amber Tamblyn is nothing short of a revelation here. I'd known her from her character on Joan of Arcadia, but frankly, I have always found her a bit annoying in that part. Like Tilda Swinton, Amber Tamblyn gives a full performance of a young woman trying to come to terms with what she has done to her child. It's a tough role to act, as Stephanie is a young woman who makes some pretty stupid mistakes and allegedly kills her own baby. It is a real credit to Amber Tamblyn that she can generate such a strong sense of empathy for such a conflicted character.
The film does have some beautiful imagery, surprising, considering it is not shot on film and looks a little flat. The opening shot of Stephanie stumbling across a patch of snow, trailing bloody footprints is a horrific and evocative moment. Plot-wise, I also enjoyed a small scene between Lydie and Denis O'Hare's character, Frank. Frank is clearly attracted to Lydie, and in a moment of weakness, Lydie allows Frank to kiss her while collapsed in the entranceway of a school. It is a small, hesitant kiss, and I like it that it remained small and hesitant. We didn't have to see Frank and Lydie fall into bed together, the small kiss was enough to open their eyes to each other's needs and desires.
The centerpiece sequence, the one the audience is dreading throughout the first half of the film, is the flashback of Stephanie giving birth in the bathroom stall at a ski chalet. As expected, it is a shocking and traumatic scene to watch, but I like how the director chose to evoke most of the emotion of the scene through the horror on Amber Tamblyn's face, and not by showing shots of a dead and bloody baby. I know it sounds strange for this kind of scene, but it was almost tasteful. It is still an extremely hard scene to watch, and you feel such a palpable sense of pity for Stephanie, it is hard to forget that scene for the rest of the film. The finale loses some power in having Stephanie make an abrupt and illogical character change, one I just couldn't understand. I like the way Lydie's and Stephanie's stories wrap up, I just felt a few steps were missed in the last 15 minutes.
Stephanie Daley is a tough and challenging film strengthened by the two female leads. It is certainly not for everyone, especially those who have strict views on abortion. Despite its controversial moments and plot problems, I would strongly recommend this film when it reaches theaters.