My daughter specifically wanted to watch a "mystery" movie, so - thinking back to my review of Gretel & Hansel - I remembered that Sophia Lillis had previously starred in Nancy Drew And The Hidden Staircase. It was right there on HBO, so away we went. It's obviously a movie for older kids and teens. There's nothing particularly nuanced about it. Compared to the 2007 Nancy Drew film with Emma Roberts, this one feels like a Hallmark Channel film.
Nancy Drew And The Hidden Staircase feels like a made-for-TV movie. Ellen DeGeneres apparently produced the film and it had a fairly minuscule budget for this day and age. It seems like it may have briefly been in theaters and made barely two-thirds of a million dollars. So it was probably made more for streaming to begin with. Which is ultimately where I watched it, so fair play to them. But, still, it has none of the gloss of film production to it. There's little scope. It doesn't look much better than your average episode of a show made for Freeform. Of course, it was brought to you by the director of Poison Ivy, The Rage: Carrie 2, and the Stripped To Kill series. (Aside from this and Carrie 2, she also wrote much of the crap she directed, including Poison Ivy, a movie I can tell you from personal experience is not good, very dumb, and typical of the "erotic thriller" genre of the time.) Given her pedigree, director Katt Shea is a strange fit for this upbeat movie about teens.
Still, at least it has Lillis, who definitely brings more charisma to the tale than it probably deserved. Unfortunately for her (and we viewers), the script was not up to the task at all. It's ironic that the writers were story editors on "The Handmaid's Tale", "Blood Drive", and "The Vampire Diaries", because this story felt edited to shit. The movie isn't quite an hour and a half and, yet, it's full of unnecessary teen drama and other padding bullshit, very light on actual mystery and development, chock full of hokey "comedy", and constantly feels like every other scene was edited completely out to minimize the amount of time it took to speed through the story. The pacing can be largely thrown at the director's feet, but the script is fairly idiotic. People are full of dumb decisions; much of the plot is nonsense that bears no resemblance to reality or behavior that appears human in any way; the dialogue is often laughably stupid and only Lillis' innate charm prevents her from seeming like a complete dumbshit. If you look at only the writing, Nancy Drew is kind of an idiot. She, like many of the characters, only display their ability to think when it's necessary to advance the story that the writers wanted to tell. That means that whenever it's more convenient, everyone makes bad decisions, poor arguments, the world works however they'd like it to for expediency instead of being grounded in any kind of reality. Only seven months after this movie released, a Nancy Drew show premiered on The CW (where it's still being produced), making it clear that the premise could be taken somewhat seriously, even if you keep it lighthearted. It doesn't have to be written like a quickie Hallmark Movies & Mysteries production starring Candace Cameron Bure.
But it still managed to rate above average, so... why? Well, it's so short you barely notice. The stupidity passes so quickly and so rarely influences the plot that you give it a pass. The TV quality look of the film and below-average production values don't get in the way of what little does work and it isn't actively negative. It's a movie aimed at teens and, for the shit that usually gets shoveled at that group, it isn't the worst. It's dumb amusement with a pretty good cast. Aside from Lillis, Laura Wiggins is good as her frenemy, Helen; Sam Trammel turns in his usual level performance as Nancy's father; it was nice to see Andrea Anders as Nancy's aunt; Linda Lavin, who hasn't been a household name since around my birth, gets to show off that she actually was a pretty good, likable actress. If this were a Hallmark production, I'd assume the rest were a bunch of Canadian actors, local to either Vancouver or Toronto, depending on where it was filmed. It isn't, but the cast is fine. They mostly do their best with the very spotty material given them. And, since the crux of a mystery film is in the details and you heard how the writers handled details, it's probably best that this film was mostly forgotten and Nancy Drew quickly moved on to greener TV pastures. I don't mind the idea of a good mystery film aimed at teens (I mean, I did just enjoy Enola Holmes yesterday), but the demographic is often an excuse to dumb things down, cut corners, and deliver the minimum product on a lower budget. So what you get ends up being less. Though his movie ends up being more than the sum of its parts, that's not saying much. They were lucky that it turned out as well as it did, entirely on the backs of its cast. Perhaps this should be a case study for what kids and teens don't need more of, even if inoffensively mediocre.