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Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase Movie Review

Boos Clues

Generations of girls have eagerly followed the adventures of popular teenaged super-sleuth Nancy Drew, the heroine of a line of books that has been published continuously for nearly 90 years. Smart, curious, independent, self-possessed, and almost absurdly accomplished, the plucky redheaded (or, as the books are fond of saying, "Titian-haired") amateur detective is forever solving cases that the police have given up on. She's been a strong role model for girls since she undertook her first adventure in The Secret of the Old Clock in 1930.

Nancy and her sleuthing have made it to the screen from time to time. Some may recall the late-70s tv show that alternated Nancy's adventures week-to-week with The Hardy Boys, and there have been several big-screen adaptations, most recently a 2007 version that set the action in California and attempted to launch Emma Roberts as a perky, preppy Nancy. It was a viable attempt, but didn't manage to segue into a franchise.

Now the plucky teen detective is back on the big screen, in "Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase." Sophia Lillis, who delivered a breakout performance in 2017's "It," is a likeably feisty Nancy with an appropriately modern edge: she gets around by skateboard, finds her way in the dark thanks to her iPhone flashlight, and conspires with pals George (Zoe Renee) and Bess (Mackenzie Graham) to give the school bully a technology-driven dose of comeuppance. Dad Carson Drew (Sam Trammell, "True Blood") is a lawyer who fights for underdog social causes, and Hannah the trusty housekeeper from the book series is now Aunt Hannah (Andrea Anders, "Instant Family"), a confidante to Nancy since her mother's death.

The film hews fairly closely to the book for its plot points: Nancy investigates an alleged haunting at Twin Elms, the gaudily-decorated mansion of the eccentric Flora (Linda Lavin, "How to Be a Latin Lover"). The town's quirky grande-dame is being menaced by nightly goings-on that include disturbing noises, ghostly intrusions, and other unsettling phenomena. (Flora's description of the escalating weirdness includes a perfectly apt line on experiencing supernatural phenomena: "After that things just stop making sense.") The case tosses Nancy together with "frenemy" Helen (Laura Slade Wiggins, "20th Century Women"), and their gradual thawing toward one another feels like a refreshingly honest mapping of the bumpy geography of teenage friendships and social cliques.

As was the case with the Nancy Drew books, the mystery here isn't too challenging. Shrewd viewers will stay a step ahead of the proceedings by recalling the "Law of Economy of Characters" from Roger Ebert's Glossary of Movie Terms, and keeping in mind that in Hollywood the term "developer" usually comes with an implied "evil" in front of it. But the teens and tweens at whom this one is aimed won't knock off points for the not-so-mysterious whodunit. Instead, they'll be absorbed by the brisk pace of the story, the believable bonding among Nancy and her pals, and a yearning admiration for the young sleuth as a brave and brainy new role model.

As that role model, Ms. Lillis turns in a strong performance and displays a good-natured likeability that quickly wins viewers to her side. She easily taps into the mix of earnestness, sass, and smarts that's necessary to modernize Nancy and bring her into the digital age. Director Katt Shea's previous projects include a mixed bag of exploitation-lite seediness ("Stripped to Kill") and guilty-pleasure potboilers ("Poison Ivy") but here she plays it straight and finds just the right tone and pacing for this entertaining family fare. She certainly has the benefit of a strong cast, particularly Ms. Lavin, whose comic timing remains as sharp as ever. Ms. Anders, who's no slouch in the comedy department, is somewhat underutilized, but with luck that will be remedied in future outings.

Because, "Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase" seems headed for a franchise; or at least the door is left open for it. The closing scene includes a reference to the next adventure in the book series, and it would be a treat to see this cast revisit the big screen led by Ms. Lillis, whose delightfully spunky take on the famous teen detective gets it just right.



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