When it comes to impending motherhood, Americans do not tolerate ambivalence, either from their friends and neighbors, or the movie characters they seek out to reinforce their deeply held prejudices. To a certain degree, men are given a pass on this matter, as their jitters and insecurities are chalked up to the standard issues of masculine denial. No such exemptions are granted to women, however, and while apprehension is acceptable, at no point may a pregnant female express regret or hostility about the life to be. A baby, then, is universally good and right and necessary, and women are expected to roll with the punches and do their duty. Stephanie Daley, a calm, measured tale of inner turmoil disguised as a mystery, is the very film to challenge these ironclad rules of femininity, though it accomplishes this without so much as raising its voice. It begins as the tale of a young girl (Stephanie, played with an unnatural maturity by Amber Tamblyn), and whether or not she murdered her baby, and melds effortlessly into the emotional turmoil of Lydie Crane (Tilda Swinton), a forensic psychologist assigned to Daley’s case. Crane is an expectant mother herself, and it is her job to glean information from the young woman, such as whether or not she knew she was pregnant until the day she went into labor. Stephanie claims that she had no idea of her condition, and that her baby died soon after being born. Lydia is skeptical, but is reasonably objective under the circumstances.
If this were mainstream Hollywood, or a Ron Howard production, the film would remain as an interrogation, and we’d end up in the familiar confines of the courtroom, the only setting Americans are willing to accept where human beings can settle their differences. Stephanie would recount that fateful day, posturing attorneys would object, a sour judge would roll his eyes, and the crusading lawyer would learn enough about herself to change for the better. It would be a crushing bore, of course, but we’d get the necessary answers, and maybe even discover why a young girl so callously left her dead infant in a ski lodge toilet. Thankfully, Hilary Brougher is in charge of this production, and at no point does she concern herself with last-minute theatrics or booming resolutions. In fact, the characters, as important as they are, are tools in a larger game, though not pawns in that they act contrary to common sense and realistic expectations. Daley and Crane are two women at different points in their life, but each senses something unsettling about motherhood; some unspeakable horror that few speak of openly, and even fewer act on with any degree of seriousness. Again, it’s more than mere panic concerning sleepless nights, dirty diapers, and strained relations in the bedroom. Instead, Stephanie Daley considers maternity as nothing short of identity theft, and how the imperative to submerge all future concerns into this new life is quite often asking the impossible. Most are able to make the transition, and if they ask the tough questions at all, are untroubled by the answers. Here, though, are two women who saw only darkness ahead, and have nothing at their disposal with which to handle the obliteration of self. It’s a confusion flirting with madness.
Lydie’s pregnancy quickly followed a prior stillbirth, which may account for some of her fragile state, but consider how she handled it at the time: While her husband insisted on a ceremony for the fetus, Lydie wanted it cremated. She also callously tossed the ashes out the car window, as if emptying an ashtray. An understandable reaction to incalculable grief? Perhaps, but maybe her guilt comes from being relieved, and the spontaneity of the roadside disposal a turn not even she could have anticipated. Again, women are trained from an early age to view their bodies as vessels for the next generation, and anyone who rejects this mission outright is freakish, if not unnatural. Lydie got married as expected, got pregnant as expected, and even played the part of a gushing parent-to-be. And here she is again, doing as she’s told, only those same feelings are being dredged up with equal force. Her husband, Paul (Timothy Hutton), is also acting aloof, and what about the strange earring found in the bathroom? We see how he’s dealing with the dawn of a new life, so why must she play by the rules others have set? Though Paul’s affair is never officially confirmed (it’s a well-placed hunch, nothing more), it does serve as a contrast to Lydie’s condition. No one endorses Paul’s wandering eyes, but it is clear that fatherhood need not alter the sense of self men must present to themselves or the world. He can still be a wolf on the prowl, a hero at home (he’s always bringing back trinkets for the baby), and a rugged, working man, all without sacrificing a single iota of personal detail. His life, then, is as it was. He’ll never really know what it’s like to reinvent the whole damn enterprise.
Stephanie’s story is told in snippets and flashbacks, and though much seems familiar, a stifling loneliness stands apart from the usual lashes of adolescence. Typically, she’s a confused kid trying to find her way in life; nursing crushes on boys, leaving old friends behind, and desperately trying to look pretty to avoid the expected insults and giggles. Her longing brings her to a neighborhood party, where she catches the eye of an older boy, who says all of three words to her before he begins his ritual of seduction. The scene is creepy, not only because it rings true, but due to its eerie similarity to rape. Without descending into feminist twaddle about the nature of female resistance and sexual power plays, it is clear that rape — technically, though not legally — need not involve violence or physical pressure. Stephanie is utterly clueless, the older boy an unfeeling lout, and her failure to fight back with fists flailing does not mean that a violation did not occur. Again, this is not a crime, but rather a typical scenario where a young girl does what she believes to be right, despite lacking all understanding of what that “right” might entail. The sex is as quick and awful as you’d expect, and though the boy claims that he didn’t ejaculate, we know better. The mistake of curiosity leads to pregnancy, which brings us to the dilemma at hand. If she knew, she made no effort to expose her condition, and therefore deliberately put her child at risk. And if she didn’t — which is more common than we’d like to believe — then it speaks to an alienation from her own body that borders on the unfathomable.
The inclusion of sex ed classes (where the teacher ridicules birth control and reinforces abstinence as the only real choice) betrays a political perspective in some respects, but there is no wider war against Christianity or conservatism. Even Stephanie’s claim that the pregnancy and botched birth were divine punishments is less about the foes of feminine freedom than typical expressions of self-involvement by the young. People of all ages sound its cry, but “Why me?” is largely the mantra of youth, and all tragedies — real or perceived — must be cast as heavenly catastrophes so as to lessen their sting. Sure, it could also be argued that Stephanie knows of her pregnancy, observes the loveless world around her (not only are boys selfish pricks, but her parents are in the process of splitting apart), and decides that family life is for suckers, but she never struck me as anything other than a younger, less articulate version of Lydie. She too wrestles with the imminent annihilation, but deals with these conflicting feelings by pretending the whole damn thing is a lie. She isn’t pregnant, because she couldn’t be, and reality, as it is for all children, becomes whatever she wants it to be.
That way of thinking is soon destroyed by the shattering pain of labor and birth, which the director chooses to linger over, as if surveying a primordial sacrifice. It’s curious, as whenever we witness childbirth naturally (sans drugs and the comforts of civilization), all women become the same and the arbitrary differences of race, age, and weight fade from view. It is seeing the female in this state, this beastly reduction to howling womb, that brings the theme full circle. Here, in the opening salvo to a life’s alteration, does Stephanie Daley shatter preconceptions. What of the woman who curses the demon inside her? Must she slither in the shadows; a creature not fully human? So perhaps Stephanie did tear the umbilical cord apart with her teeth and stumble away from her duty. What then? She’s a killer to all but a few, with the holdouts grappling for a greater understanding; an empathic gesture that holds open the door shut tight by motherhood’s call.