2.5 out of 5 stars.
“Nancy Drew” is one of the most beloved and most famous children’s book series of all time, and yet, despite numerous attempts from the 1930s to now, no film or television adaptation of it has fully been successful. The same can be said for “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase,” a new film that came and went briefly in theaters and is now available on demand. Based on the book of the same title and directed at Katt Shea, the movie brings high school sleuth Nancy Drew into the modern times of cell phones and social media—and that’s part of the problem.
After the death of her mother, Nancy (Sophia Lillis) and her father Carson (Sam Trammell) move from Chicago to the small town of River Heights. Nancy is brave (the skateboard is her preferred method of transportation), inquisitive, and clever, and uses that cleverness to get back at a jock who humiliates her friend. Nancy’s scheme is found out, however, and she is sentenced to community service, but it’s there that she meets Flora (Linda Lavin) and her niece Helen (Laura Slade Wiggins). Flora believes that her house is haunted, and with no one else willing to help her, Nancy eagerly takes the case. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that there is more at stake here than just ghosts.
Choosing Lillis (who had her big break playing Beverly Marsh in 2017’s “It”) to play Nancy Drew is an inspired bit of casting. Not only does she resemble the Nancy that most of us usually picture, but she embodies her curiosity and adventurous spirit with ease. The other characters are more or less forgettable, including the fairly obvious villains. There’s no Ned Nickerson here, but there is a young deputy (played by Andrew Matthew Welch) who seems keen on helping Nancy, while fans of the books will recognize Nancy’s friends George and Bess (Zoe Renee and Mackenzie Graham) and the Drew’s housekeeper Hannah (Andrea Anders).
This film surprisingly takes a lot from the original story, including familiar characters and a plot involving Carson and a land dispute, but that story was first published in 1930. This film brings it to the present day, and it does the best it can. There is some new content added to the script, like an opening that involves Nancy and her friends using the power of social media to get back at a bully, that doesn’t flow well into the mystery itself, which is rather old-school. Furthermore, these mysteries are a lot more intriguing and difficult to solve without the help of cell phones and the internet. “The Hidden Staircase” mostly tries to adhere to the old-fashioned haunted house format while also trying to be modern for its target young adult audience, but it just feels a bit off, and I think this is a big reason why most contemporary film and television adaptations of Nancy Drew haven’t been successful.
Overall, “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” isn’t terrible; in fact, it could have been a lot worse. But I don’t think that saying that it is one of the better modern Nancy Drew adaptations is a big compliment either. This movie is very safe; the mystery isn’t incredibly compelling and the stakes never feel as high as perhaps they should. Ultimately, it isn’t much more than mildly diverting TV movie fare. And sure, the target audience for this movie is young teenage girls (not necessarily older people who grew up with the books and maybe “Hidden Staircase” was their favorite one, not that I’m speaking from experience or anything) and if this film plays any part in interesting them in the Nancy Drew books, then that’s great. But I didn’t find this movie especially engaging, and I can’t imagine they would either.
Runtime: 89 minutes. Rated PG.