Film Review: Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (2019)

For traditionalists, Nancy Drew mysteries were the ones with the yellow spines, whereas the Hardy Boys were blue. Although the two respective series were written with either girls or boys in mind, there was a lot of crossover readership, because they always primarily focused on some sort of mystery. That changed in the mid-1980s, when Simon & Shuster updated the Nancy Drew packaging and added a spin-off line that cranked up the romance and high school angst. Despite some nods to modern creepy internet culture, it is the old school doesn’t-suffer-dumb-cops-gladly Drew who is on the case in Katt Shea’s Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, which opens nationwide this Friday.

The latest movie reboot returns to the second Nancy Drew book ever published, The Hidden Staircase, reportedly longtime ghostwriter Mildred Wirt Benson’s favorite that was previously adapted for the screen in 1939, with Bonita Granville portraying Drew. This Drew is not so happy her widower father Carson Drew decided to relocate from her beloved Chicago to the supposedly peaceful River Heights, but she makes fast friends with the brainy Bess Marvin and earnest Georgia “George” Fayne. Consequently, when Marvin falls victim to a popular jock’s cyber-bullying, Drew masterminds a stinging payback caper.

*image courtesy of Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (2019)

Clearly, this opening escapade is intended to modernize Drew for the target early teen demo and establish her resourcefulness. It also brings her into conflict with Helen Corning, the cyber-bully’s soon-to-be ex-girlfriend. Rather awkwardly, Drew and Corning will have to work together when the young sleuth agrees to investigate the apparent hauntings bedeviling Corning’s eccentric Aunt Flora. Meanwhile, Carson Drew is caught up in the intrigue surrounding the campaign to open a controversial rail station in River Heights.

Even though we know it will all have a Scooby-Doo-style explanation, the supposed supernatural business in Aunt Flora’s house is surprisingly convincing looking, thanks to some nice work by both the cast and the special effects team. However, the film is really driven by Drew’s rapport with her friends and father. Frankly, this is easily one of the most endearing father-daughter relationships depicted on-screen over the last several years. Sophia Lillis (the girl from It) and Sam Trammell have terrific chemistry as Nancy and Carson Drew. Lillis also shares an appealing rapport with Mackenzie Graham, Zoe Renee, and Laura Wiggins, as Marvin, Fayne, and Corning, even if the latter looks a little too mature for high school. Plus, Andrea Anders gets some laughs as Drew’s aunt, a former stand-up comic.

Recommended for nostalgic Drew fans and families that enjoy upbeat, age-appropriate mysteries

Screenwriters Nina Fiore and John Herrera’s adaptation and updating of Hidden Staircase has a lot to say about young women’s empowerment and the benefits of resisting peer pressure. Frankly, it is quite endearing to watch Drew’s friendships evolve and withstand the stress of their sleuthing. Yet, the film cannot be dismissed as “anti-guy,” since there are several positive male characters, including Carson Drew and the stalwart Deputy Patrick.

Although the cyber-bullying prologue goes on far too long, Shea generally finds a good balance between the righteous crime-fighting spirit of the original books and the contemporary attitudes of Drew’s demographic cohort (probably better than most of the novels published in the early 2000s), while keeping the proceedings refreshingly free of cynicism. It makes the mind spin to consider this family-friendly film was helmed by the director of Poison Ivy and a co-star in Hollywood Hot Tubs, but such is the case—and Shea did a nice job of it. Recommended for nostalgic Drew fans and families that enjoy upbeat, age-appropriate mysteries, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase opens nationwide this Friday (3/15), including the AMC Empire in Times Square.


*lead image courtesy of Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (2019)


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