Birth pangs of adulthood

'Stephanie Daley,' a film about a teen accused of an unspeakable crime, is framed as a cross between a whodunit and a whydunit.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Stephanie Daley (Amber Tamblyn) is a teenage girl who is accused of killing her newborn. She claims she did not even know she was pregnant until she gave birth, and so her truthfulness, and her sanity, are called into question.

The movie, which bears her name and was directed by Hilary Braugher, is in part a search for the truth, but on a deeper level it's about the emotional relationship that develops between Stephanie and Lydie Crane (Tilda Swinton), the forensic psychologist brought in to examine her.

Lydie's personal issues are portrayed in parallel with Stephanie's. Pregnant, with a miscarriage in her recent past, Lydie is apprehensive about giving birth. She has a fraught relationship with her husband (Timothy Hutton), a decent man who can't find a way to console her.

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At first Lydie stands apart from Stephanie's ills. It's her way of allaying her own anxieties about childbirth. But over time, the two women develop a simpatico relationship even though it is never clear if Stephanie is telling the truth. Even when Braugher flashes back to the traumatic moment when Stephanie gives birth locked inside a ladies' bathroom stall, we are never entirely sure if what we are watching is how things really happened.

Was the baby stillborn? Did Stephanie, to the point of pathological denial, truly believe she was not pregnant? Amber Tamblyn, best known for TV's "Joan of Arcadia," has a composed presence that belies her character's inner turmoil. Although a certain blandness is the result, it's an appropriate presentation.

By contrast, Swinton is the kind of actress who wears her turmoil on her face. Lydie can't hide her anxieties even when she's supposed to be an impassive investigator. Her eyes are clouded with woe.

Braugher perhaps overvalues the parallels between Stephanie and Lydie. The scenario is too schematic and diminishes the power of each woman's story. She frames the drama as a cross between a whodunit and a whydunit, and neither strategy is entirely successful.

But she does get at something rarely broached in movies: The abject fear that some women experience regarding their impending childbirth. The fear is not an existential one, it's basic – a fear of physical pain. In place of cozy homiletics, Braugher inserts a sharp note of honesty. Grade: B

Rated R for disturbing material involving teen pregnancy, sexual content, and language.

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