Unavailability condemns many good films to oblivion, depriving viewers of unknown pleasures and deforming the history of the art. One movie that I’d been impatient to see again, Hilary Brougher’s second feature, “Stephanie Daley,” from 2007, had not been available to stream until recently, as far as I could tell. It recently turned up on Tubi, one of the new generation of free-streaming sites that the industry calls AVOD, or advertising-based video on demand, on which viewing is free of charge but movies are interrupted with commercials. This site is an enormous grab-bag, offering a small batch of rare classics (such as “David Holzman’s Diary,” “Rendezvous in Paris,” and “Stroszek”) along with a wide variety of familiar and unfamiliar films from recent years.
“Stephanie Daley,” which I saw and wrote about enthusiastically at the time of its release, is well worth revisiting, both for its great artistic merits and even for its one major yet illuminating flaw. The title character, played by Amber Tamblyn, is a sixteen-year-old high-school student in the small town of Hunter, in upstate New York. While on a ski trip with classmates, Stephanie gives birth, alone in a public bathroom, and soon after is charged with killing the newborn baby. The incident is instantly sensationalized by local media and Stephanie becomes the target of derision and of hate. In order to pursue the case, the local prosecutor (John Ellison Conlee) needs a psychological evaluation of Stephanie, and hires the forensic psychologist Lydie Crane (Tilda Swinton), also a resident of the town, to do it. The movie is centered on the interviews involving the two women, which Lydie records with a small video camera, and much of the action is seen in flashbacks detailing the time of Stephanie’s pregnancy and delivery.
But “Stephanie Daley,” which runs only an hour and a half, turns out to be two movies in one. Stephanie’s story is abbreviated and compressed to leave time and dramatic space for Lydie’s, and the difference between the two strands of storytelling is pronounced. The Stephanie movie is a minor masterwork of psychological implications and sociological diagnostics, while the Lydie movie is a well-intentioned collection of commonplaces and clichés. (I wonder whether Lydie’s peculiar prominence has anything to do with the fact that Swinton served as one of the movie’s two executive producers.) Yet even in its truncated form, the story of Stephanie offers enough revelatory details, hints and clues—realized by Tamblyn with a remarkable blend of strength and fragility, naïveté and determination, purpose and confusion—to both serve as a sufficient drama in itself and to resonantly evoke aspects of her life that aren’t displayed in the film.
Stephanie is the only child of Miri (Melissa Leo) and Joe (Jim Gaffigan), a middle-class family in an unexceptional house in a town of natural splendor. The Daleys are regular churchgoers, and Stephanie goes with them. The town life is imbued with religious conservatism: in Stephanie’s public high school, a sex-education teacher advocates abstinence (and leaves a hint that she does so only because it’s required). Students are required to carry timer-dolls and timer-eggs that beep inconveniently to remind them of the difficulties of parenthood. A classmate and former friend of Stephanie’s, named Satin (Caitlin Van Zandt), who is in quiet rebellion against religious authority, is mocked, insulted, and slut-shamed by classmates. Even the hip young English teacher (Neal Huff) centers class discussions, with an odd vehemence, on religious principle.
Teen life in Hunter—at least, in the normie set to which Stephanie belongs—is wildly confused and confusing. Stephanie is no rebel. She’s a member of the marching band, a responsible student planning to go to college, a dutiful daughter. (She also voices her principled opposition to abortion on the grounds that it’s “like killing a baby.”) She’s also somewhat shy and inhibited around boys—as her best friend, Rhana (Halley Feiffer), tells her goadingly. Yet the fear of sex is as endemic as the force of desire, the silence as powerful as the generally sexualized flirting and chatter. After Stephanie loses her virginity—sordidly, to a stranger, at a party—she can’t talk about it, and when she becomes pregnant she doesn’t talk about that, either. (Her friends notice only that she’s gaining weight.)
Lydie’s own state of mind strongly influences the tone and substance of her evaluation of Stephanie, because Lydie is seven months pregnant at the time of the interviews, and is still in mourning for her baby who was stillborn less than a year earlier. That unresolved grief is at the center of Lydie’s stifled conflicts and bitter tensions with her husband, Paul (Timothy Hutton), and far too much screen time is spent on the conventional contours of the marriage story. (There’s overly coincidental, parallel stress in the Daleys’ marriage.) The connection between Lydie’s maternity and Stephanie’s story has a superficial obviousness (along with a suggestion of class difference that the rushed-through drama only hints at), but Lydie’s state of mind is nonetheless developed significantly in the course of the interviews themselves, which Brougher writes with an admirable sense of dialectical drama and intellectual audacity. In the crucial confrontation, Lydie works around to asking Stephanie a crucial question: Before giving birth, was she aware of being pregnant at all? No spoilers, but Stephanie, deflecting the question’s practicalities, ventures quickly and deeply into a personal metaphysics of religion that, for all its philosophical extravagance, fits the character closely, seems to emerge naturally from her pensive and solitary ways. Stephanie’s assertions reveal a personal morality that is as severe as any her community has imposed on her, and that enables her to turn the tables on Lydie.
Brougher films with a sharp-eyed, vulnerable, yet combative sense of symbolism that nonetheless sticks close to the drama’s physical specifics. Near the start of the film, she follows Stephanie’s trudging footsteps during the ski trip, each harrowingly imprinting the snow with a blotch of blood. The demanding, agonizing sequence of Stephanie giving birth evokes Stephanie’s terror of being found out, making piercingly canny use of the tiny gap beside the door of the bathroom stall. Significantly, the film’s most revealing images involve the interviews themselves, in a scene where Lydie, shaken by Stephanie’s remarks, sits alone and watches one of the interviews, on the tilt-out screen of her video camera. Unlike the live-action scenes of the interview, which Brougher films in conventional shot and reverse shot, cutting back and forth between the two women, the videos show only Stephanie, in closeups, and exclude Lydie. With a ferocious, alienating tension, these video closeups of Stephanie conjure the overwhelming power of her story, along with the legal and societal pressure that’s entirely and relentlessly focussed on her. They also provide decisive visual evidence of the movie’s misguided division between her story and Lydie’s. That division is capped in the movie’s final image: a closeup not of the title character but of Lydie, fading to black. Stephanie Daley deserves to be the center of “Stephanie Daley”; she should have the film to herself.