After a delay of more than a year since its celebrated Sundance debut, Stephanie Daley has finally been granted one of those radar-blip releases that means either: a) the distributor thinks it's the sort of cheap schlock that will do best on video where the undiscerning can be fooled by good cover art, or: b) it's unmarketable. Since Stephanie Daley is a moody character piece exploring the mind of a 16-year-old girl who left her newborn baby dead or dying in a ski lodge restroom, we can probably guess which of those two scenarios applies here.
I can't possibly pretend that I don't understand this logic; you can't look at that description and think, "this is a movie that I absolutely want to spend time and money on, because it sounds awesome," and even having seen the film myself and experiencing its terrible, overpowering emotion, I could never walk up to someone and say that they must see this movie. It's too suffocating for that. All I can say is that I am personally, extremely glad that I saw it, for as joyless as it may be, it's still a brilliant emotional experience.
Stephanie Daley is very little more than a comparison of the similar crises afflicting two women: Stephanie herself (Amber Tamblyn), the frightened and possibly homicidal teenager, and Lydie Crane (Tilda Swinton), the pregnant forensic psychologist who takes down the girl's story with an eye towards validating her claim that she was never aware of her delicate condition for some eight months.
I can't go much further if I don't go on a wee tangent: if someone were to ask me what was most interesting about the film from a formal standpoint, I would surely respond "its structure"; the story slides almost imperceptibly from Lydie's arc in the movie's present (May, 2005) to Stephanie's arc, beginning one year prior and ending in January. It's not so barbarically literal as "what happens to Lydie also happened to Stephanie, like this!" but there is a definite rhythm to the crosscutting that is as much philosophical as it is narrative.
The really tricky thing here is that Lydie's story is not a perfect match for Stephanie's; the girl's arc stretches from conception to childbirth, where the psychologist is trying to grapple with the last couple of months, and her fears of losing the child while she struggles with a crumbling marriage. So in one sense, Lydie represents only one half of Stephanie's tragedy. But that's only if we count what is shown onscreen; for as we learn almost immediately, Lydie herself had a tragic stillbirth, right around the time that Stephanie was impregnated (this fact is revealed only inductively, never explicitly). We learn somewhat later on that this event left Lydie in the same state of amoral shock that Stephanie occupied when she left the newborn, and so it is revealed that Lydie does mirror Stephanie's entire story; only she does it in reverse, and her version of the story is split in half, bookending the girl's.
This form gives the story a certain sort of timelessness; particularly in the way that it stretches a single moment of pain in Lydie's life into a year or more of suffering and fear, Stephanie Daley gives the sense that all terrible things have happened, and happen now, and will happen again. To be alive is to suffer, and in their own ways Stephanie and Lydie both search for grace to keep themselves whole.
Unusually for a Sundance-bred indie film, it is clear that the characters in this plot believe in God, perhaps even a loving God, although that's altogether less clear. The movie itself doesn't precisely not believe in God; it seems to me that the tone is closest to the model of Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light, in which God's existence used to be true, but that God Himself is either dead or exiled. Either way, He cannot prevent human suffering, and because of this the tragedies of Stephanie Daley are more spiritually painful than they would be in a purely atheistic universe.
So into this world of pain and suffering runs the story, and in the person of these two women, we are presented with many questions and no answers. Are we to judge Stephanie harshly for her behavior, and morally, does it matter if the child was dead when she dropped it in the toilet? Does Lydie's increasingly isolated and paranoid behavior represent a healthy and sane response to a horrible world, or is she just lashing out at her husband for existing after their child died? Et cetera ad infinitum, and while I understand why people complain about dramatic works that raise questions without settling them, I'm not particularly sympathetic. The point, I suspect, is that we're not supposed to come up with quick rote answers. This is a story to ponder long after it's over.
This is Hilary Brougher's second film as a writer and director (the first is incredibly obscure, however, so this is her "coming out" as it were), and while she surely leads it with a steady hand and clear eye, with a command for tight pacing that can only be thought of as innate, not learned, there is an obvious freshness to the tone that can only come with a new filmmaker. While there are clear antecedents - Bergman I mentioned, and of course where there's Bergman there's Dreyer - Stephanie Daley has an unmistakably female point of view that I've personally never quite seen in a film of this extraction. I'd break ranks with those who argue that it's primarily a film about gender-based power dynamics, but those dynamics are present, certainly, and from a perspective that I can't imagine coming from a man's direction.
At the end of the film, we've never received a final answer on the main question: did Stephanie Daley kill her child? - and I for one would not think of changing that. It would be far too easy for the film to turn into a procedural, which it looks like from time to time, but that is not why it matters. What matters is that we are permitted a brief glimpse inside a tormented soul, and while we are not required to forgive Stephanie, it is impossible not to understand what went on in her mind in those moments. This is a generous film, and all the harder to watch because of it, but it is cathartic as well, in a way that most movies never even imagine.