Pregnancy is fucked-up shit,regardless of age. I speak from observation, not experience, and generally I would refrain from swearing (at least in print) when another word or words would do, but they won’t. Perhaps during some pre-Existentialist, pre-ultrasound period human pregnancy was simpler, perhaps not, but what is clear today is that every knocked-up woman has a unique relationship with the parasitic stranger growing in her belly. For every idea about the beginning of “personhood,” there are thousands upon thousands of women trying to choose a truth to apply to their unborn offspring.
Things get really funky in the second trimester, as the expecting presumably begin to “show” and as medical distinctions get confusing. In the U.S., at 20 weeks a miscarriage becomes classified as a stillbirth. A death certificate is issued (and a birth certificate, in some states). The remains are no longer considered medical waste. Fetal viability, however, is generally agreed to occur later, sometime between 24 and 28 weeks (doctors decide on a case-by-case basis). Less than 2 percent of abortions are performed after the 21st week, according to Prochoice.org. By Planned Parenthood’s numbers, adolescents make up about 25 percent of abortions after the first trimester.
Stephanie Daley is not about abortion, but hinges on the rights of an adolescent’s questionably viable, severely premature newborn. Gender relations, modern technology, and pop psychoanalysis also figure into Daley, writer-director Hilary Brougher’s smart second film, a highly naturalistic, expertly structured drama about a teenage girl accused of infanticide. (The film’s co-lead, Tilda Swinton, acts additionally as executive producer. A comfort, as The New York Times reports a decline in the already small pool of working female filmmakers, as well as a diminishing drive in Hollywood to create films for women.)
Joan of Arcadia’s Amber Tamblyn portrays the titular character, a 16-year-old tracking blood with her ski boots as she stumbles through the snow when we first meet her; and the beautifully androgynous Swinton is Lydie Crane, the 40ish, pregnant forensic psychologist assigned by the prosecution to Daley’s case.
Tamblyn, it must be noted, has come a long way from The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Her nuanced performance in Daley suggests great things to come as she characterizes Stephanie both before and after what she devoutly believes and attests was a stillbirth. (She also indicates that she was unaware of the pregnancy.) Tamblyn’s skill is highlighted as Brougher’s script and camera move back and forth in time, from bright, beautifully composed summer and high-school days, to the underlit palette of Lydie’s office after the incident. We know Lydie only in the present, but Stephanie Daley’s timeline, pieced together through one imposed line of text and several conversations, suggests that she experienced a stillbirth relatively close to when Stephanie (may or may not have) experienced hers. Lydie’s current pregnancy is a frightful mystery to her, radically different from her first. Even her husband (an unshowy but very effective Timothy Hutton) has become a scotch-scented enigma since their tragic loss.
But she rises above any potential conflict as she interviews Stephanie, drawing out memories to discover that Daley, and she herself, have quite naturally chosen truths to suit themselves.
Brougher and her actors successfully balance on an incredibly tight rope, and in doing so, they have produced a tender, thought-provoking, not at all graphic piece of filmmaking that should be seen by everyone. Great stories, as Stephanie’s literature teacher attests (elevating Dimmesdale’s troubles above Hester’s in a discussion of The Scarlet Letter), are “about man and God.” Stephanie Daley, a story about women and their deceased offspring, thwarts that sentiment. •