Quiet carries the day--and haunts the nights--in Stephanie Daley. You won't find any histrionics here... no smash ending and no action sequences-- unless you count a collision between a car and a deer. With a calmness that bespeaks the filmmaker's confidence, this small, spellbinding second feature by Hilary Brougher centers on two women, trapped in separate states of denial and distress, who manage to end each other's entrapment.
Amber Tamblyn plays the title role of a 16-year old high school student accused of killing her newborn baby. Tilda Swinton is a forensic psychologist, Lydie Crane, who's been hired by the prosecution to evaluate Stephanie's competence to stand trial. When the sessions with Stephanie begin, Lydie is halfway through her own pregnancy, and it's a parallel that Steph immediately picks up on. "Is that why they hired you?" she asks. The answer is no, but another question is whether the parallel seems too convenient for artistic comfort. Again the answer is no, but not because the similarities are handled subtly, or allusively...it's because they're handled forthrightly, even boldly. This is a study in parallel lives. At the same time it's a richly specific--and deeply affecting--story of two very different women, at different stages of life, struggling to come to terms with who they are, what they have or haven't done and how much responsibility they should take for it.
The running time of Stephanie Daley is a mere 92 minutes -- that's two minutes longer than the filmmaker's 1997 debut feature The Sticky Fingers of Time. Within that span, though, Brougher creates a remarkably intimate portrait of vivid personalities, solitary souls, ambiguous relationships, troubled marriages. She seems to have caught small-town American life on the fly in flashbacks to a teenage party, a high school ski trip, a marching band in which Stephanie plays the flute, or a biology class in which the teacher avoids the subject of condoms by saying dutifully that safe sex can be achieved only by abstinence, according to the school board. At first the basic narrative device seems implausible, with a competency hearing that evolves into something close to therapy; why would a smart girl like Steph confide in a shrink who's been hired by people who want to put her in prison? But Steph and Lydie are drawn together by emotional logic. Each senses that the other has something she needs to get whole and be able to move on.
Stephanie Daley is beautifully made. The cinematography, by David Rush Morrison, is both sharp-eyed and self-effacing Morrison is particular good at shooting faces in what seems to be natural light. David Mansfield's music turns minimalist tones reminiscent of Lou Harrison into tactful but forceful punctuation. Naturalism and tact are also the hallmarks of a supporting cast that includes Timothy Hutton, Melissa Leo, Dennis O'Hare and Jim Gaffigan.
In the final analysis, though, Hilary Brougher has hitched her wagon to two stars, and they complement each other perfectly. Tilda Swinton has given so many remarkable performances, including Orlando and The Deep End in this one she throttles back without ever powering down: Lydie can speak volumes with an urgent phrase or a questioning glance. Amber Tamblyn has been best known until now for her work on the TV series Joan of Arcadia. Here she's simply breathtaking, and heartbreaking, as a girl-child estranged from her pregnant self. In repose, Stephanie's face is that of a Madonna. In extremis, she summons up visions of that series of Munch paintings called "The Scream." In between, meaning most of the time, Steph is lost, and Lydie is far from found.