We see a trail of blood on the snow. A teenage girl staggers up a hill in some type of struggle. Next she is being carted away in an ambulance. We later find out this girl gave birth in a bathroom stall when a baby’s corpse is found in a toilet by the local authorities.
Amber Tamblyn plays Stephanie Daley, the title character of this intense drama. Stephanie has been charged with killing her newborn. She claims she had no idea she was pregnant, and that the baby was stillborn. It is up to Lydie Crane (Tilda Swinton), a forensic psychologist, to evaluate Stephanie before she goes to trial.
Lydie herself experienced a stillbirth, and is now pregnant with another child. Her marriage to an architect, played by Timothy Hutton, is on shaky ground. Also, instead of being overjoyed about being pregnant after losing a baby so tragically, Lydie is apprehensive, worried if everything will be okay this time around.
Stephanie, now known by the media as “ski mom,” is viewed as a horrible murderess of an innocent life. Lydie knows there is much more to the case than tabloid headlines, and she is both empathetic and bewildered by the young woman. Stephanie has a flat affect in these sessions, showing almost no emotion as Lydie questions her about what led up to that fateful day.
We see Stephanie’s story unfold in flashbacks. She gets pregnant the first time she has sex. The guy tells her he withdrew in time. With her lack of sex education, Stephanie has herself convinced that she can’t be pregnant despite the physical changes. She begins to wear very loose clothing. No one suspects she is pregnant. But how could Stephanie not know she’s pregnant? Is she in denial? This is left ambiguous.
Stephanie’s loneliness in her situation is palpable. Her parents, played by Jim Gaffigan and Melissa Leo, are loving, yet oblivious to what Stephanie is going through. Her high school friends are caught up in new boyfriends and extracurricular activities. And the boy who impregnated her is long gone.
While on a class ski trip Stephanie goes into labor. She struggles to make it to the ski lodge where she gives birth in a bathroom stall. People go in and out of the ladies’ room completely unaware of what is going on. Stephanie gives birth with no assistance, no hygiene and no drugs. We never see the baby come out of Stephanie, but do see her face in utter agony. This scene is gut-wrenching, and very difficult to watch. In the commentary, director and screenwriter Hilary Brougher claimed some people actually fainted while watching this scene at various film festivals.
Lydie is fully committed in getting the truth out of Stephanie, yet she can’t help but see parallels to her own experiences. She wonders if she truly accepted her stillbirth in the proper manner. And she also questions the choice of getting pregnant so soon after her stillbirth. Plus, Lydie knows her marriage is on the rocks. Can she and her husband make it?
This movie, just like life, is filled with questions. Nothing is ever easily solvable. We live in a world where teen moms are condemned as nasty sluts, and at the same time MTV has made teen moms into media sensations.
Stephanie Daley isn’t so much a “who-dun-it” as it is a “why-dun-it.” It examines the human psyche with both complexity and compassion. The performances are outstanding. And if this movie would have gotten more media attention when it was first released, Amber Tamblyn could have been nominated for an Oscar. Stephanie Daley is not an easy film to watch, but it is an important one. And it is one that stirs both discussion and debate.