There’s something in the woods, and it’s coming after Stephanie. The monster doesn’t have a name, but when it comes, it shakes the walls and rattles the earth. It throws grown men like they were rag dolls, and justifies small children’s fear of the dark. It’s the reason why Stephanie’s parents went away and it’s the presence that keeps little Stephanie confined to this house, petrified to wander any farther than her front lawn. She’d like to believe that her love for her parents can help her stand a chance against this beast, but as she’ll soon discover, their emotions are only fueling its fire.
In the film, we see Stephanie (Shree Crooks) all alone in her big two-story house without an authority figure in sight. At first, there’s not much of an explanation provided, but we get little hints that make it evident that this little child who isn’t even tall enough to reach the food-filled jars on top of the shelves without standing on a stack of books has been on her own for a while. The walls are coated in crayons with a little pile of Crayolas resting carelessly at the bottom of the stairs. A newspaper in the downstairs office totes the headline “Invasion! Unknown entities breach”. She prepares each meal all by herself, nearly chopping off her little fingers with the blades of the blender, and shouting out profanities followed by giggles because she knows that there’s not an adult around for miles that can scold her. It’s cute, but it’s also very sad because no child who’s still young enough to hold conversations with a stuffed animal frog should be spending several days on their own without supervision – especially when there’s something so ominous lurking just outside.
Eventually, her parents (Frank Grillo and Anna Torv) arrive, and for a brief moment in time, it seems as though things might be okay. Sure, they had to bury Stephanie’s brother in the backyard, and her mother appears as though she’s walking on eggshells, making secret facetime calls to old military buddies and asking what the CDC has to say about the pandemic slowly taking over the world…but at least they have each other, right? The best way to survive an apocalypse is to rely on your loved ones, and take comfort in the fact that knowing that no matter how bad things get, at least you have each other. Sadly, that isn’t the case in this scenario. If anything, their mutual adoration for one another is only making things worse.
The latest film from Akiva Goldsman and Blumhouse Productions, Stephanie is quite the mixed bag. It’s a really cool concept, the idea that our love for our children could be used as a weapon against us, and the one thing that should keep us safe is exactly what an evil force is using to infiltrate our society. Frank Grillo is terrific as always, and little Shree Crooks even manages to hold her own in his presence, making the pair’s relationship feel that much more authentic as a father/daughter dynamic. The moments where the audience is trying to figure out what’s going on, like when we’re watching Stephanie prepare her meals, brush her teeth with way too much toothpaste, and question her nervous parents about the monster, are what really works. It’s when we’re in suspense, and putting the pieces together that this little movie really shines.
However, for all of its successful ideas, it, unfortunately, becomes weighed down by its insistence on adding an overabundance of exposition. Despite the fact that the majority of the film is shot inside the house, with much of the storyline simply revolving around watching Stephanie go about her lonely day, it actually opens up at a lab where scientists are doing experiments to try to solve this strange epidemic. The film tells us that the year is 2027, and that people are supposed to remain calm for fear of catching the virus. They are especially supposed to keep their cool when they’re in the presence of inmates. The scenes at the lab are mixed with shots of a rogue group of what we can only assume are escaped patients, wandering around outside and tracing it back to where it all began. All of the scenes inside the house are the main part of the story, but it’s squeezed in-between scenes of scientists poking and prodding and playing with high-tech machines to attempt to unveil the evil at its source. It’s meant to be interesting, but all it does it take away from the film because it shows that the movie doesn’t have much faith in its audience, who could’ve probably figured out what was going on without scientists spelling it out for us.
Overall, Stephanie has some really great ideas, but sadly slightly gets in its own way. By cutting out some of the exposition, chopping off the bookends of the movie, and setting the entire story in the house and in the house alone, this movie could’ve been on a whole other level. It’s still enjoyable and unique and worth watching, and especially fearsome for parents, but in the end, the monster in Stephanie is made less scary by shedding too much light on its source material.