Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase

Movie review by
Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase Movie Poster Image
Sparkling book adaptation has great characters, some scares.
  • PG
  • 2019
  • 89 minutes

Parents say

age 11+
Based on 19 reviews

Kids say

age 11+
Based on 11 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Themes of empathy, courage, teamwork run strongly through movie. Negative actions have consequences, both for villains and for heroes/main characters. Teens learn not to judge others based on appearances/assumptions. A girl is told she's too smart to be attractive but receives a sincere apology later.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Nancy is brave, kind, available to help others when they need her, but she doesn't ignore her own needs. She pulls a prank that she later regrets, resolving not to participate in vigilante justice in the future. One of her best friends is depicted as bullied and downtrodden; the girl becomes more confident thanks to her friends' support. Four teen girls pull together to give help to someone who needs it. Adults are present and supportive, though an authority figure is in danger, needs the girls' help at one point. An older character is called an "old bird" at one point, yet she's characterized sympathetically, not ridiculed. Nancy's friends are more diverse here than in the books; they're also very skilled in science- and tech-related skills.


Some scenes may be scary for younger/more sensitive viewers, like dream sequence in which scary mask is pulled off "ghost" to reveal no face beneath. A creepy legend involves a double murder and suicide. Teen girls are chased, threatened, grabbed by adults. Eerie moments in a supposedly haunted house: lights float, furniture moves on its own, a dark shadow is seen. A character is kidnapped, said to be in danger; his kidnappers have guns and brandish them, but no one gets shot (one character does get stabbed in the hand and then dosed with a psychoactive compound). Characters are knocked out via blows to the head and by chloroform/similar. A teen talks about her dead mother. Nancy rides a skateboard around town, wearing a helmet while she does. Bess is cyberbullied; she and the other girls get revenge by doing something similar to the perpetrator (which an adult argues is assault). Arguing.


A slightly older male character gives Nancy loaded glances and special attention. Characters talk about girlfriends and boyfriends. An illicit affair is at the center of a creepy ghost story that ends in a murder-suicide. An older character is presented as sex-positive: She says she was formerly a burlesque dancer and is convinced to shimmy briefly. Later, a long list of people includes many of her "gentleman callers." ("Too many?" she asks Nancy. "Never too many," says Nancy, high-fiving her.) Teen boy shirtless at the gym/in the locker room; same boy ogles girls as they work out.


Expressions/words like "damning," "bejeesus," "baller," "oh my God," "oh my gosh," "dillweed," "troll," "loser," "pain in the butt," "stupid," "idiot," "tool," "lizard brain," "mental," "psycho," "dumb," "darned," and "freaking." Also a couple of unfinished "son of a!" exclamations and "cheese and rice" as a stand-in for something stronger.


References to Kool-Aid and Instagram; character wears a NASA T-shirt.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A hallucinogenic substance found in nutmeg causes several characters to have strange visions -- and foils a villain. A character jokes that another, distraught character has been drinking "special Kool-Aid," who says back that "my choice of a cocktail in retirement is none of your business." A desk attendant has liquor in her coffee that Nancy smells; later, we see her sleeping on the job. Adults drink wine.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase is based on a classic 1930 Nancy Drew mystery book and is aimed at tweens and young teens. Though the story involves a politically motivated kidnapping and a supposedly haunted house, the scariest moment is during what turns out to be a dream sequence, when a creepy mask is pulled away to reveal a blank void. A man is kidnapped and threatened with death by gun-wielding abductors. A young teen talks briefly about her mother, who has died; another is cyberbullied, and she and her friends respond in kind -- facing consequences/punishment as a result. Teen girls are chased, threatened, and briefly grabbed by adults; one character stabs another in the hand; and, after a villain is given a hallucinogenic substance, he sees frightening visions. Characters talk about boyfriends/girlfriends, dating, and crushes, and a male character gives Nancy (Sophia Lillis) loaded glances and special attention. An older character with a past as a burlesque dancer is depicted as still sexual; she refers to a long list of "gentlemen callers." Language is mild but includes "damning," "oh my God," "loser," "butt," "freaking," etc. Positive messages include courage and teamwork, and strong role models (mostly female) are at the center of the action. 

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byprojectkate March 16, 2019

Too scary for young elementary

My kids like action/adventure but there are two scenes that are too realistic and scary for littles. For context, they were not scared of Guardians of the Galax... Continue reading
Adult Written byMimi100 September 16, 2019

Not Nancy Drew

If you have read the books, then you know this is not Nancy Drew. It would have been better to just make a movie - not pass it off as Nancy Drew! There is no... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written byNinty1 July 21, 2019

Good, but scary

It is a good movie and has many positive messages, but there are some scenes that will scare some smaller children like the pig ghost scene.
Kid, 10 years old December 27, 2020

some scary scenes

There a few very scary scenes that include a dude in a pig mask and a dark shadow with a captive. There are some drugs and violence. Overall, the movie is exc... Continue reading

What's the story?

Based on the long-running series of mystery stories, NANCY DREW AND THE HIDDEN STAIRCASE is set in a modern-day River Heights, where Nancy Drew (Sophia Lillis) and her lawyer father, Carson (Sam Trammell), have moved from Chicago following the death of Nancy's mother. With Carson embroiled in a local fight over a proposed new train system, Nancy gets mixed up in a mystery. Eccentric local Flora Turnbull (Linda Lavin) believes that her mansion, Twin Elms, is being haunted by restless spirits. Can Nancy and her friends uncover what's behind Twin Elms' strange happenings and bring River Heights together again? Andrea Anders co-stars as Hannah, who's Carson's sister/Nancy's aunt in this version, rather than their housekeeper.

Is it any good?

Sparkling and lovable, this tween-friendly film ably updates Nancy Drew for the "future is female" generation. Fans of the classic books may wonder how Carolyn Keene's "girl sleuth" (who never let a mystery distract her from a pretty frock or a good hot meal) would read in an age when girls' lives are much more adventurous (and complicated) than those depicted between the original books' yellow covers. But 2018's Nancy Drew keeps what was always great about Nancy -- her bravery, her empathy with victims, and her girl-power pals -- and smartly skips the old-fashioned and hidebound, like the books' casual sexism and racism.

The plot of Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase is drawn directly from the book of the same name (not the 1930 original, but the 1959 update), and it's silly Scooby-Doo action all the way. You'll guess the villain as soon as he shows up, and none of the other plot "twists" will come as a surprise, either. What might? Almost every character gets a humanizing moment, including the so-called "mean girl" who believably transforms from an eye-rolling snob into a true pal, thanks to the warmth and kindness of Nancy and her pals. Young viewers will be on board both for the hijinks and for the movie's essential sweetness -- because that never goes out of style. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why kid/teen books are so often turned into movies. What built-in appeal might a character from a popular book have? Would a fan of the Nancy Drew books be more likely to see Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase? What other book-to-movie adaptations can you name? How is this movie similar to or different from them?

  • Bess is upset when someone posts a mean video about her online. Have you/your friends ever dealt with cyberbullying? How did you handle it? What do you think about the way Bess, George, and Nancy get their revenge (or, as Nancy calls it, "justice")? Is it warranted? Are the consequences appropriate?

  • How do the characters in Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase demonstrate courageempathy. and teamwork? Why are these important character strengths?

  • Is Nancy a role model? Why or why not? Do she and her friends provide positive examples of gender representation? What do you think of the expectations they have for themselves -- and one another?

  • In the Nancy Drew books, Nancy is generally depicted as a high school graduate, though her age ranges from 16 to 18. Why do you think the filmmakers chose to show Nancy as a high school student? What dramatic possibilities does this setting hold? Would tweens be as likely to relate to an adult character?

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