When we first meet Stephanie Daley, she is stumbling through the snow, a trail of blood in her wake, collapsing at the foot of a ski slope. Soon, her stillborn baby is found dead in a nearby toilet, and the controversy begins. She is accused of murdering her child and of callously dumping the evidence, and in the court of public opinion, the verdict has come back guilty. She is taunted by unknown strangers and reviled by those who fail to understand her indifference to human life.
Naturally, Stephanie (Amber Tamblyn, of “Joan of Arcadia”) tells a very different story. She claims she didn’t know she was pregnant. She insists the baby was stillborn, despite the water found in its lungs and the toilet paper stuffed down its throat. She says she “told it to die”… and that it just did. And despite the preponderance of damning evidence, some remain sympathetic to her cause — her parents (Melissa Leo and comedian Jim Gaffigan), and forensic psychologist Lydie Crane (Tilda Swinton), an expecting mother who once had a miscarriage of her own.
“Stephanie Daley” is told mostly in flashbacks, as a scared, naive teenager (dubbed the “Ski Mom” by reporters) recounts the events that led up to her tragic childbirth. She only had sex once, she says, and she never considered the possibility of pregnancy because her partner withdrew in time. Raised by conservative religious parents, she believed the morning pains and rapid mood swings were God’s way of testing her. And when her infant arrived so unexpectedly, she panicked and made a choice that has left her visibly guilt-ridden.
But “Stephanie Daley” is just as much the story of Lydie, the woman responsible for assessing her young charge’s mental state. Desperate to have a child of her own, Lydie struggles to understand how anyone could so easily toss one away, but slowly, the details start to make sense.
Is Stephanie the heartless monster depicted by a cynical press corps? No. She is a confused girl who made a terrible mistake, and it is not until the film’s waning moments that the grim truth of the matter is revealed. By then, Lydie and Stephanie have formed an unmistakable bond, and the scenes in which their uneasy partnership is forged prove most poignant.
Hilary Brougher, who wrote and directed the film, has an impeccable ear for dialogue. Her ability to bridge the generational gap between Lydie and Stephanie, in scenes that seem effortlessly authentic, makes “Stephanie Daley” such a worthwhile experience. There are times when the action slows to a crawl, but thanks to a smart, perceptive script, it thrives, illustrating a great divide between women and those who would prefer to judge rather than try to comprehend their decisions.
Stephanie Daley ***
Starring Tilda Swinton, Amber Tamblyn, Timothy Hutton, Denis O’Hare, Melissa Leo
Written and directed by Hilary Brougher
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes