Here’s one to catch at Red Box, on Netflix or your favorite “family” movie channel.
Everything about “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” says, firmly and with conviction, “TV movie.”
Sophia Lillis, who played a young Amy Adams (character) on TV’s “Sharp Objects” is a properly plucky (if pale) and intrepid sleuth in this nicely updated but thin and half-speed re-boot of a teen heroine who dates — fictionally — from The Great Depression.
She’s mouthy, moody, headstrong and independent — a skateboarder inclined to compliment a deputy sheriff with how happy she is that he’s not “as much of a tool” as she thought he was.
Her “superpowers,” her Aunt (Andrea Anders) reminds her, upon her moving to tiny River Heights, are “perseverance and righteousness.” But in this backward berg in which Chicagoan Nancy and her father (Sam Trammell) have re-settled in, it’s her powers of observation, unflappable ability to reason, rationalize and decode clues on her feet that will serve her well.
The town’s slated to get a commuter train, and as that will entail destroying some of the character of the place and taking down some landmark old homes, Nancy’s lawyer-dad is fighting it.
We figure out who the villains of the picture are the moment we see them.
One of them might be Mean Derek (Evan Castilloe, ALSO of “Sharp Objects”) and his Mean Girl Girlfriend Helen (Laura Wiggins). But Helen’s aged Aunt Flora (Linda Lavin, TV’s “Alice”) isn’t — a villain, I mean.
Her historic house is haunted, she says. And getting the blow-off from the sheriff’s department isn’t reassuring.
“I have stared down communism,” the octogenarian growls. No, she ain’t afraid of no ghost.
Neither is Nancy, who ignores her suspicions about the Mean Girl and Mean Girl Boyfriend (“Rich people are PSYCHOS!”) and spends the night to do a little sleuthing and debunking.
This “Nancy Drew” gives up the ghost in a lot of regards — its villains, for starters, the “mystery,” the story and the failed attempts over the years to revive this character (Emma Roberts made a memorable throwback Nancy back in 2007 — and the first version of the “Hidden Staircase” story was filmed back in 1939) for the age group she was once intended for — teens. This “Drew” picture skews younger, and the director only figures that out with a bit of slapstick in the opening prank, and the finale.
What does the critics’ put-down “TV movie” mean in this day and age? It has to do with cut-rate casting. Ms. Lillis makes a fine Nancy — all redheaded pluck — but surrounding her with no-names is classic “cut-rate Georgia-filmed TV movie” casting.
Lavin can still handle a punch line — Aunt Flora wondering if “my cheese was finally sliding off the cracker,” comparing her bare-belly-button (in EVERY outfit) niece’s generation to hers — “We had better HAIR back then.”
The rest? Not even the “You’re REALLY grounded this time” is something these folks can make funny.
The classic TV movie approach to filmmaking includes slack pacing and a picture that tells its story in a series of endless BIG close-ups of the leads. Teevee was historically a close-up medium, you see — faces lost in wide shots in the pre-HD “small screen” dark ages.
The result — then and now — is typically dull, a picture best enjoyed under the freedom of DVR, or better yet walking out of the room during, or before and after commercial breaks. You can rest assured you aren’t missing much.
MPAA Rating: PG for peril, suggestive material, thematic elements and language
Cast: Sophia Lillis, Sam Trammell, Zoe Renee, Andrea Anders, Mackenzie Graham, Laura Wiggins and Linda Lavin
Credits:Directed by Katt Shea, script by Nina Fiore and John Herrera. A Warner Brothers release.
Running time: 1:29