After losing her mom 16 year old sleuth Nancy Drew (Sophia Lillis) and her father Carson (Sam Trammell) relocate from Chicago to the rural town of River Heights. While Carson is active in local politics, opposing a proposed train line through town, Nancy struggles to fit in. Her attempt at avenging a friend against a high school bully goes a little too far alerting the town sheriff. Sentenced to community service Nancy overhears Flora (Linda Lavin), an elderly woman, and her niece Helen (Laura Wiggins), coincidentally the bully's girlfriend, failing to convince the sheriff to investigate their supposedly haunted house. Volunteering to help, Nancy spends the night only to witness the seemingly supernatural goings on first hand. As she delves deeper Nancy discovers something more devious than a mere ghost whereupon danger strikes unexpectedly close to home.
Making a return to directing after an eighteen year absence cult filmmaker Katt Shea makes a family film surprisingly consistent with her background in exploitation films led by strong heroines: e.g. Stripped to Kill (1987), Streets (1990), Poison Ivy (1992). Unlike the usual rent-a-hacks making mid-budget children's fare Shea can stage a decent suspense sequence although the haunting of Flora's house is disappointingly prosaic. It almost comes across like a Nickelodeon version of The Conjuring (2013).
Produced by actress, comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase is the sixth feature film outing for the beloved children's literary detective. As a testament to the character's enduring popularity it arrived the same time as a new TV adaptation aired on the CW network featuring an older, "darker" take on the mystery-solving heroine. It is interesting to contrast Sophia Lillis' sassy, tomboyish skater girl take on the role with the impeccably well-mannered overachiever Emma Roberts played in the character's last cinematic outing: Nancy Drew (2007). At first glance Robert seems like the more faithful incarnation as glimpsed in the books of the Forties through to the Seventies as well as the early films with Bonita Granville (who headlined the first adaptation of Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase in 1939) and fondly remembered TV show with Pamela Sue Martin. However Lillis is actually a throwback to the original outspoken proto-feminist version of Nancy Drew before the character was softened by the editors behind the book series.
The 2019 incarnation of Nancy Drew wears her social justice warrior inclinations on her sleeve as she deals with misogyny and online bullying and helps friends stage revenge pranks on high school trolls. Yet despite the Gen Z makeover and a script that occasionally strains too hard to be down with kids, dropping cringe-worthy pop culture references, the cosy small town mystery aspect retains its appeal. The leisurely pace may alienate some but stays true to the source and leaves room to explore the likable characters. Lillis, part of the gifted ensemble of child actors that distinguished It (2017), makes for a charismatic, emotive and warm Nancy Drew. She sparks an appealing chalk and cheese double act with the 'girlier' Helen who, in a message screenwriters Nina Fiore and John Herrera interweave with the mystery plot, goes against her 'mean girl' reputation and proves a brave, compassionate ally showing Nancy life has room for more than one specific form of empowered girl.