Nancy Drew has been in more books than Harry Potter but fewer movies. (Harry even got two movies out of one book. What gives?) Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase is a promising new start to a modern Nancy Drew franchise.
The first case Nancy (Sophia Lillis) solves is a case of cyber bullying. It’s not only relevant but empowers kids to see that they can deduce solutions from simple information. Time stamps on someone’s social media posts can tell you their predictable schedule, let alone analyzing a video to find revealing clues by the sloppy bully.
The revenge Nancy exacts on Derek (Evan Castelloe) is sort of a reversal on the “guys spying in the girls’ locker room” from ‘80s teen comedies. That’s fair play. It’s sort of cinematic revenge for movies with blasé misogyny, and Nancy doesn’t ogle or objective Derek. She exposes him for being a bully and lousy boyfriend (props to Castelloe for showing obnoxious leering dude bros for who they are).
It’s admirable that Nancy defends her friend Bess (Mackenzie Graham) but there are consequences for her too. Nancy has to do community service for vandalism and Carson (Sam Trammell) is a good father explaining that it’s still possible to do the right thing the wrong way. Nancy should learn to use her power to raise others up, not tear bad guys down.
Nancy takes the case of Flora (Linda Lavin), who is experiencing strange phenomena in her old home. Flora’s niece is the mean girl Helen (Laura Wiggins), also Derek’s girlfriend, so Nancy grudgingly works with Helen to help Flora. Flora also stands up to ageism, so Feminist Franchise Fred is totally on board with this movie’s values. Nancy’s friend George (Zoe Renee) also calls out Helen’s implicit approval of Derek’s bullying, but the movie is fair to Helen. It’s asking a teenager to rock the boat in a world where adults don’t even do that.
As a mystery, Nancy rules out theories clue by clue to find the logical explanations. Lillis’s enthusiasm is endearing and her one liners land because she’s undeterred by skeptics. The maguffins and red herrings may not fool experienced cinefiles, but if this is some kids’ first experience with a movie mystery it’s a good one. It’s got a good spirit of “they would’ve gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids.”
The mystery itself is really only a Maguffin to spend time with these lovely characters and their genuine friendships. So Franchise Fred approves Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase. Now hurry up and make more before Lillis isn’t a teenager anymore!