Though it’s not the first movie this year to bring infanticide to American moviegoers, Hilary Brougher’s second feature film Stephanie Daley wants to shatter stereotypes about baby killing. Infanticide is more than just a tool in the (loincloth-clad) eugenicist’s arsenal; it’s a means of healing the lives of all it touches. Death has never been so life-affirming.
Amber Tamblyn (of the late Joan of Arcadia) plays Stephanie Daley, a high school girl on trial for the murder of her newborn baby. Stephanie contends that her baby was born dead, and that she never knew she was pregnant. Forensic psychotherapist Lydie (Tilda Swinton) is brought in to interview Stephanie and determine whether or not she’s telling the truth. Conveniently, Lydie is pregnant herself. Even more conveniently, she’s at the same point in her pregnancy (a little more than halfway to term) as Stephanie was when she prematurely gave birth to her doomed baby. To make matters even more dramatically intense, Lydie’s first pregnancy ended at about the same time in a tragic stillbirth.
Brougher hasn’t chosen these gestational periods by chance, either. In New York State, where Stephanie Daley takes place, viability is set at 24 weeks from conception, after which point abortion becomes homicide unless performed by a physician in order to preserve the life of the mother. Additionally, Lydie makes mention of the fact that after 20 weeks, the fetus is no longer considered medical waste, but the responsibility of the next-of-kin.
All three pregnancies in Stephanie Daley hover around the legal point of viability, but Brougher isn’t interested in making statements about the current state of abortion in America, or the right to choose vs. the right to life. Rather, Brougher turns her face from Stephanie Daley’s dark heart in order to serve up a conventional tale centered on Lydie and her own issues about motherhood.
Independent film is supposed to save us from this kind of storytelling, the Oscar-winning kind that purports to tell us about the Other but really just tells us about ourselves. Dances with Wolves and its white protagonist; Philadelphia and its straight one. It’s cinema for narcissists. Is it any wonder Hollywood does it so well?
Indie film was built to call bullshit on Hollywood. Feminists, homosexuals, and racial minorities came out of the woodwork to present first-person accounts of the characters and stories Hollywood would rather see sublimated. Films like Sally Potter’s Orlando, Tom Kalin’s Swoon, and David C. Johnson’s Drop Squad left the heterosexual, white majority on the margins—or left them out all together.
We all know what happened, though. Independent film proved profitable, so Hollywood came a-calling. The mini-majors sprang up, and the Sundance Film Festival became a behemoth. In the process, indie film became gentrified and the development process standardized. An examination of the Sundance lab films of the 21st century reveals an alarming trend towards homogenization, and Stephanie Daley, a product of the Directors Lab, is a near-perfect example of the negative effect that Hollywood-style development has had on independent film.
To begin with, Stephanie Daley uses tight causality in a classic setup/payoff dependent structure. Story choices are limited to those that advance the plot, and the tighter the causality, the less able the viewer is to construct alternate meanings. In “The Concept of Cinematic Excess” (Rosen, Philip, ed. Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968, p. 141), Kristin Thompson writes that the danger for the viewer is that of “mistaking the causal structure of the narrative for some sort of inevitable, true, or natural set of events which is beyond questioning or criticism (except for superficial evaluation on the grounds of culturally defined conventions and canons of verisimilitude).” The tighter the narrative, the more unimpeachable the truth it presents.
The language of causality is expressed through the judicious use of setups and payoffs. A subsection of Lydie’s story—the central narrative of Stephanie Daley—shows tight causality:
• Frank (Denis O’Hare) comments on Lydie’s unpierced ears
• Lydie finds a diamond stud for a pierced ear in the catbox, which she pockets
• Lydie kisses Frank after her husband Paul (Timothy Hutton) fails to show for childbirth classes
• Lydie tells Paul to change the catbox, because pregnant women can’t touch cat litter
• Lydie pierces one of her ears at a stand at the mall managed by one of Stephanie’s friends
• Lydie asks Paul if he’s having an affair
• Lydie tells friend Miri (Melissa Leo) that Paul will always come back to her
The comment about Lydie’s earlobes focus on an aspect of Lydie’s physicality that has nothing to do with her pregnancy, opening up a potentially erotic storyline focusing on pregnant sexuality and even adultery. However, the subsequent scenes reign in this excess and tie Lydie’s unpierced ears back to Stephanie and ultimately back to the true subject of the film, which is Lydie’s own self-revelation about her identity as a mother, which exists outside of and supersedes her other identities as a professional and as a wife.
In the same essay, Thompson writes, “A narrative is a chain of causes and effects, but, unlike the real world, the narrative world requires one initial cause which itself has no cause.” The Big Bang of causal narrative is the act of creation. Brougher chooses to set the initial cause of Stephanie Daley within Lydie’s backstory—not Stephanie’s.
This choice betrays the second way in which Stephanie Daley goes Hollywood: through a psychoanalytically fueled plot engine. The primary purpose of Stephanie’s story is to bring Lydie to terms with the one heedless moment that’s ruined her marriage and poisoned her image of herself as a mother. As her sessions with Stephanie progress, Lydie grows more and more haunted by her fears, at one point dreaming of going into labor, hitting a deer with her car and having to give birth in the woods. The psychotherapist has to make her own confession, telling Miri of bringing her first child’s cremated ashes back from the hospital. Paul wanted a funeral, but Lydie, on impulse, opened the windows and threw out the ashes. She can’t be a mother until she reconciles this moment, which Stephanie enables her to do by admitting that as she held her baby in her hands she wished that she would die, and she did. There’s throwing out a baby, and there’s throwing out a baby. The line clear, Lydie can absolve herself for her sins and move forward into blissful motherhood—with or without Paul.
By contrast, Stephanie’s journey is given no root cause in the film, nor in Stephanie’s own recounting to Lydie. She loses her virginity at a party in a loveless, perfunctory act (alienating sex is a minor hallmark of the Sundance Institute style), then covers up her pregnancy before giving birth prematurely while on a school ski trip. The birth scene is harrowing (due in large part to Tamblyn’s confident, subtle performance), and then the story is all over save for the telling. Once Stephanie tells Lydie all that Lydie needs to know, she accepts a plea bargain and heads off to jail. Her life, such as Brougher lets her have one, is over, but Lydie’s has just begun.
Dressed as it is in the indie vocabulary of handheld camerawork and zit-enhancing HD, Stephanie Daley presents the illusion of complexity and ambiguity, but it’s just watering down difficult subject matter and avoiding the very real ethical issues that Stephanie’s predicament raises. By placing Stephanie’s baby’s birth just past the point of viability, Brougher opens the door for an exploration of the unsettling relationship between abortion and infanticide, the debate over whether choice should come with limitations (very appropriate for this week in US history), the arguments over personhood as championed by Peter Singer and expressed through legalized infanticide in Belgium and the Netherlands, and the power that women have over life and death. The story itself doesn’t even need to name these issues or make them a part of the narrative—these are excesses that the causal structure inhibits. But most of all, by sidelining Stephanie to a supporting role, Brougher insures that the audience doesn’t have to face any of it. Instead of an exploration of the dark side of pregnancy, Brougher gives us a take on pregnancy that could easily be dropped into an episode of Sex and the City. Motherhood makes me feel weird! Am I a bad person if I don’t always love my baby? What if I make mistakes? We’re subjected to Lydie’s narcissism (and our own) while Stephanie sits in the corner reminding us that she made life, and she can take it away. She is Mother.
The Sundance Film Festival is littered with films that make the same mistakes as Stephanie Daley, and many of them, like Stephanie Daley go on to win awards and accolades for their bravery and audacity. But this is the same self-congratulation that stifles true daring and creativity; for the next few years development execs will say, “Oh, the ’teen mom kills her baby’ thing’s been done,” because that’s how things work these days in Indiewood and Hollywood alike. The Sundance Institute will continue to steamroll over true innovation in the name of perpetuating commercially viable “indie” film, and Stephanie’s baby will have died in vain.