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D: Akiva Goldsman / 86m

Cast: Shree Crooks, Frank Grillo, Anna Torv, Jonah Beres

A young girl, Stephanie (Crooks), is alone in her family home, her only companions a stuffed toy turtle called Francis and a rabbit called Mr Hopper. Her parents (Grillo, Torv) have disappeared, and she doesn’t know if and when they’ll be coming back. She channel hops between her favourite TV shows and occasionally sees a news channel that is reporting on some kind of global epidemic. While she seems happy to be on her own, if she becomes sad or upset, it draws the attention of a monster that lives in the nearby woods. When this happens, Stephanie has learnt to hide and keep absolutely quiet; then the monster will go away. When her parents finally come home, her father is overjoyed to see her, but her mother is guarded and uncertain. There are issues surrounding her brother (Beres), and there are implications for Stephanie and her parents that are related to the epidemic. While her father erects a fence around the property to keep out the monster, Stephanie begins to suspect that there are things her parents aren’t telling her. But when they do, it puts a whole new perspective on everything she thought she knew…

Originally shown at the 2017 Overlook Film Festival, Stephanie is a Blumhouse production that is much more low-key than usual, but which also has a number of unfortunate elements to it that provide a good indication as to why Blumhouse’s usual distribution deal with Universal has resulted in around a year’s delay in getting the movie out to audiences (the movie hasn’t had a theatrical run). While the central notion of an isolated young girl at the mercy of a predatory monster has the potential to provide the requisite scares and thrills needed to make the movie work effectively, issues with the script – by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski – are further compounded by the erratic nature of Akiva Goldsman’s direction. The first twenty-five minutes, where Stephanie is shown getting by on her own, or avoiding being caught by the monster, are drawn out and lack the necessary impact that would allow the viewer to be really concerned for her. While the monster certainly makes its presence felt (and Jamie Hardt’s sound design helps immensely here), the ease with which Stephanie eludes it neuters any possible tension.

With the arrival of Stephanie’s parents, the movie picks up a certain amount of speed, but in the process begins to offer more questions than it has answers for, least of all in terms of the nature of the monster, and more so in relation to what’s going on in the wider world, and why. The script never properly explains why Stephanie was abandoned, and it never recovers from a third act-providing twist that makes no sense when weighed against what occurred in the first act. Throughout all this, Goldsman directs at a safe distance, disallowing any real emotion to find its way through the fog of misconstrued intentions on the parents’ side, and specious motivations on Stephanie’s side. The movie ticks over acceptably, but fortunately has a very good performance from Crooks as Stephanie, her childlike behaviour matched by more adult qualities handed to her by the script (though not consistently). Grillo and Torv cope well with characters that come across as convenient though not essential, while the denouement is frustratingly predictable once the twist is revealed. The script does attempt to show the fears governing both Stephanie and her parents’ actions, but while there are potential themes and sub-plots that could have been included – and would have made the material richer – in the end, the movie is too innocuous to be anywhere near as potent as it should be.

Rating: 5/10 – with the pace and tone of the movie at odds with its thriller aspects, Stephanie struggles to maintain a consistency likely to keep the average viewer fully engaged; a shame then, as the basic story – or its potential – could have made this a small but accomplished horror thriller, rather than the distant, unfulfilling feature that it really is.

NOTE: Currently, there doesn’t appear to be a trailer for Stephanie available, just the short scene below:

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