PLOT A teenage sleuth investigates a haunted house.
CAST Sophia Lillis, Sam Trammell, Linda Lavin
RATED PG (some scary moments)
BOTTOM LINE Lillis shines as the brainy detective, but the movie itself is none too bright.
She's brave, smart, resourceful and strong-willed, yet Nancy Drew can't seem to get any traction on the big screen. It's been more than 10 years since a young Emma Roberts starred in “Nancy Drew,” a flat-footed kiddie movie hampered by tossed-off writing and what looked like a stingy budget. The movie went nowhere, despite distribution from Warner Bros., and the studio's new attempt, “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase,” seems unlikely to get much further.
That's too bad, because “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase” is the second major film role for Sophia Lillis, following her breakout turn in the Stephen King horror film “It,” from 2017. As the lone girl in a gaggle of boys in that film, Lillis radiated a hard-to-define but powerful magnetism. Red-haired, freckle-faced and blue-eyed, Lillis certainly looks the part of a tomboyish Drew, and she does everything she can to give the character a sharp mind and a touch of modern attitude. Unfortunately, Lillis is stuck in a movie so dull-witted and square that it almost seems to resent her presence.
Though Nancy Drew has been around since the 1930s (she was created as a girls' counterpart to the Hardy Boys) and appeared in at least a couple hundred books, this film mostly rehashes the Roberts movie. Once again, Nancy moves to a new town with her father, Carson (Sam Trammell), stumbles upon a decades-old murder mystery and ends up exploring cobweb-covered passageways. Flora, a kooky lady with a supposedly haunted house, is played with a touch of sass by Linda Lavin; Willie Wharton, a thug who seems strangely impassioned about a plan to bring mass transit to the area, is played by Jesse C. Boyd.
This sub-“Scooby-Doo” storyline, from screenwriters Nina Fiore and John Herrera, might not be so wearying if the film, directed by Katt Shea (“Poison Ivy”), had just a bit of zip, an unexpected one-liner, even a single emotionally engaging moment. Amazingly, Lillis manages to shine, tossing off even her nothing lines (“Much obliged,” “Why, thank you”) with a knowing smile or a naughty giggle, as if a much better Nancy Drew movie were playing in her head. That's the one they should have made.