Stephanie Daley revolves around the actions of its titular character, a quiet, well-spoken sixteen-year-old girl played by Amber Tamblyn, who gets herself pregnant on the first try, carries the child to term and then delivers it in an isolated bathroom during a ski trip and suffocates it with toilet paper. Collapsing from blood loss in the snow minutes afterwards, her situation is immediately discovered and becomes a sensation for the media, which tags her with one of those disposable, insensitive monikers designed to grab a fickle audience and hold them for a few minutes: 'the ski mom.' In a neat dramatic contrivance, Daley, as preparation for her criminal trial, is ordered to be evaluated by 40-something forensic psychologist Lydie Crane (Tilda Swinton) who is heavily pregnant after a long and draining struggle to be so -- a struggle that included a prior pregnancy resulting in stillbirth. We eventually learn that, against the wishes of her now distant husband, Lydie chose to have that stillborn disposed of like medical waste rather than be given a name or a funeral service.
Tamblyn's role in Stephanie Daley's double act is largely a thankless one, since her task is to be mostly inscrutable during her interview sessions with Swinton's character, giving the audience no 'in' as to why an otherwise mannered, seemingly thoughtful girl would take such a drastic step to rid herself of a baby instead of seeking out an abortion or carrying and then giving it up for adoption. When Stephanie does speak, she often talks about being judged by God or spouts one-liners so loaded as to make the audience feel that they may be watching a character trying to make a play for an insanity defense -- at one point, she casually references a 'jinx' that hovers over her existence. Are we supposed to view Stephanie as remarkably contemplative for her age or just as a teenager who has seen enough Law & Order to know that she better come up a damn good reason for why she did what she did? That there's no clear answer is dramatically intriguing up to a point, but it's also frustrating.
Timothy Hutton plays the long-suffering husband of Lydie, and perhaps the only character in the film who could, at a stretch, be classified as what you might call pro-life. His emotional state is one of dormant grief for the stillborn, which he sought to name and eulogize and still views as nothing less than a deceased child. Lydie, despite understandably being worried about conceiving at her age, is seemingly ready to move forward and forget the past. The distance between her perception and his is a bridge too far for their marriage, which is clearly on a downward trajectory -- they are already engaged in head games about potential adultery. The film never bothers to pinpoint exactly what Lydie wants out of her sessions with Stephanie; there's no sense of any personal goal she needs to satisfy other than to do her job with routine professionalism. The audience is left free to examine these two characters, who represent different points on a somewhat similar spectrum, and draw its own conclusions about the moral acuity of each.
One of the saddest scenes in the film is the one of Stephanie losing her virginity to a slightly older boy in an upstairs bedroom during a typical high-school party. Director Hilary Brougher uses a jarring shot sequence during the scene, cutting immediately from the seductive whisperings of the boy, as they both sit upright on the bed, to the forceful gruntings of hasty intercourse in the pitch dark. The scene is edited so as to leave one with the perception that Brougher views sex -- at least sex as it happens to Stephanie Daley -- as little more than violence, politely introduced. Eventually responding to a loud, angry pounding on the bedroom door, presumably by one of his drunken friends, the boy hops off of Stephanie and announces, as if he expects thanks from her, "I didn't come." The camera then lingers on her traumatized face, which we can only assume is a way of reminding us that this is a child who is completely not up to the mental or emotional challenges of her impending adulthood.
Brougher is terribly restrained in her visual presentation, relying on a subtle blend of HD and 35mm and shooting the quiet snowscape of upstate New York as a kind of depression haven where sad, emotionally constipated people pass each other like ships in the night. Scenes between Tamblyn and Swinton are introduced with master shots of them sitting at comfortable distances apart from each other, each smartly dressed and well-postured. If you didn't know any better, you'd think the film was Canadian, with the internalized ideas it brings to the table about manners and interpersonal relations. The emotional release is all saved up for one scene, the one we assumed the film was going to politely avoid, in which we actually see Stephanie biting back agony in a cold, impersonal bathroom stall as she gives birth to a child that she has already planned to murder. Tamblyn is riveting during this pivotal scene, and whatever judgments you will make about her character and the choice she makes at least can't be made until you've seen it.