Do kids today still know Nancy Drew, the prodigious teenage detective who’s been skulking around novels, occasional movies, and TV shows since 1930? Maybe not, but they should. Part of the fun of Nancy Drew, separate from that of more constant remake subjects Robin Hood or Tarzan, is seeing how filmmakers interpret a girl’s boundless interest in sleuthing for different eras. The last time Warner Bros. made a movie about her, writer-director Andrew Fleming addressed the character’s old-timey roots by giving the tenacious Nancy an appreciation of retro fashions and mannerisms. Nancy Drew And The Hidden Staircase reboots the character again, this time sans clever gimmick—though the uninitiated might initially mistake this skateboarding, flannel-clad Nancy (Sophia Lillis) for a ’90s throwback. The movie opens with her peeling through the streets before jumping into a case that’s more revenge than mystery, as Nancy uses her sleuthing skills to get even with a teenage bully (shades of her ’00s descendant Veronica Mars).
Nancy is up in arms because her shy, brainy friend Bess (Mackenzie Graham) has suffered a very 2019 plight: She’s the victim of a nasty viral video from popular sporto Derek (Evan Castelloe). Nancy, Bess, and their friend George (Zoe Renee) seek revenge to teach Derek a lesson—and also, frankly, because Nancy is a little bored. Her lawyer dad, Carson (Sam Trammell), has uprooted her from her Chicago upbringing following the death of her mom, landing them in a small town where they’ve previously only spent summers.
After Nancy’s pranklike retribution lands her in trouble, she remains loosely entangled with Derek via his girlfriend, Helen (Laura Wiggins), who is trying to help her Aunt Flora (Linda Lavin) with a possible haunting of her eccentrically maintained property. Although Bess and George are skeptical of Helen’s queen-bee bona fides, Nancy is desperate for any manner of excitement or intrigue, and agrees to investigate the situation. Will this have anything to do with the laboriously setup plot about possible gentrification of their charming small town? (In an old-timey touch, sinister corporate interests are represented by the specter of... the town possibly getting its own train stop.)
Director Katt Shea has experience adapting iconic teen-girl characters. Her previous theatrical feature was the belated sequel to Carrie (itself now 20 years old). Early on, she gives Lillis, Graham, and Renee the space to act like genuine teenagers: sometimes gangly, sometimes nervous, not always ready with a perfect zinger. They’re believable as the type of friends who might conceivably have a de facto sleepover in a chem lab, waiting for test results. That group dynamic goes a long way toward making the movie feel contemporary, rather than laboriously contemporized. The Hidden Staircase acknowledges complications like social media but doesn’t attempt to make major statements about being a teenager in 2019. For better or worse (and despite Trammell’s physical resemblance to Josh Hamilton), this is not an Eighth Grade-style reimagining of Nancy Drew.
As it happens, the most up-to-the-minute aspect of Hidden Staircase is how out of place it feels as a theatrical release. That the film plays like a direct-to-streaming offering is not necessarily a negative. It’s certainly in keeping with the character’s movie history: Warner’s most successful crack at Nancy Drew features came in the late ’30s, when it hastily produced a quartet of B-pictures about the character, all starring Bonita Granville and clocking in around 65 minutes. The new Hidden Staircase (based on the same book that inspired the fourth and final Granville movie) runs a comparatively epic 89 minutes, and if anything, it feels a little padded out. This is not a series that requires the big-budget blockbuster treatment, and the modesty of the production allows for Lillis—best known for her role in It—to strike a real-world likability. She wears the flannel and the skateboard. They don’t wear her.
The movie itself, though, is less diligent than the teen-detective hero it attempts to reintroduce. The screenplay can barely be bothered to think of exacting, exciting details for Nancy to ferret out in her sleuthing (one of Nancy’s friends expresses awe when she looks semi-closely at a frame of video), much less the particulars of its aesthetic or sensibility, which turn out to be virtually nonexistent. It’s a watchably low-key family adventure, but that’s a low bar to clear for Nancy Drew, so well-suited to function as a gateway text—to Sherlock Holmes, Veronica Mars, Philip Marlowe, Brick, House, Encyclopedia Brown fanfic... almost anything involving advanced noticing. The Hidden Staircase ultimately fails to introduce the younger members of its audience to the pleasures of movie detectives; the character-actor bit parts are as colorless as the flat, washed-out cinematography. Granted, a junior noir aimed at 10-year-olds is probably a big ask. But even kids should demand a mystery that doesn’t telegraph its bad guys at the 20-minute mark.