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Amber Tamblyn in Regent Releasing's "Stephanie Daley"
GIRLS LIKE the title character in "Stephanie Daley" pop up on the news every so often, young women who hid their pregnancies, gave birth by themselves and then disposed of the infants, either dead or alive. We recoil in horror and think "How could she?"

Hilary Brougher's somber, honest movie gives us what we rarely get: the girl's side of the story. "Stephanie Daley" is played by Amber Tamblyn, perhaps best known for her winning work in the short-lived TV series "Joan of Arcadia." She played Joan, a high school student who took good Samaritan instructions directly from God yet was not beyond whining about it. The premise was absurd but Tamblyn always made Joan feel very real.

Here Tamblyn creates a character so believable that she makes you realize how unfortunately unrealistic Joan -- who was always forthright with her parents and would never have been incautious about birth control -- actually was. Tamblyn's performance is a delicate balancing act; she has to stealthily reveal who Stephanie is to us while still holding back the most vital information until the very end.

When Stephanie walks into the party where she will meet her one and only lover, she's awkward and so out of place that it hurts to watch her. Her friend has done her make up (terribly), and she's wearing a shirt that shows off her stomach. But all she wants to do is flee to an upstairs room to pet her hostess' cat. Brougher gets every bit of this party scene right, particularly the way Stephanie ends up giving away her virginity out of gratitude that someone wants it.

All of this is told to us in flashback. Brougher, who also wrote the screenplay, has set up the plot almost as a detective story with Tilda Swinton playing Lydie Crane, the forensic psychologist the prosecution has hired to assess Stephanie. It's Lydie's job to find out whether Stephanie understood she was pregnant and killed the premature infant after giving birth in a bathroom during a school ski club outing, or whether the child was both a surprise and stillborn, as Stephanie insists.

In a piece of dramatic construction that feels too obviously nailed together, Lydie has an emotional interest in Stephanie's case. She herself gave birth to a stillborn daughter the year before. She's pregnant again and very anxious about it; mostly because she suspects that she did something wrong during that first pregnancy. She also feels guilty about the way she mourned, or rather, didn't mourn in full, the loss of that child.

Swinton is, as always, raw and natural and fascinating just to look at. When she stumbles about, kissing one of her best friends (Denis O'Hare) while simultaneously grappling with jealousy because she thinks her husband (Timothy Hutton, doing a very good job raising our doubts as well) might be cheating on her, she's almost as awkward as Stephanie. But why Brougher felt the story needed the symmetry of the pregnancies is unclear.

Perhaps she hoped to differentiate "Stephanie Daley's" plot from that of 1985's "Agnes of God." But she already had, simply by rooting her story in the real world, the world of girls who are afraid to ask questions, afraid to go to their mothers, afraid to take a close look at their own bodies.

Unlike "Agnes," Stephanie is no dazed novice living in the shelter of a convent, proclaiming she's had a virgin birth. She's just a real girl, with a real problem. Unfortunately this very worthy film is at this point scheduled to only spend a week in local theaters, so if you want to see it, either make the effort to get over to San Francisco or hassle your local theater into booking it.

Mary F. Pols is the Times movie critic. Reach her at 925-945-4741 or mpols@cctimes.com.

'STEPHANIE DALEY'

***1/2

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Amber Tamblyn, Timothy Hutton, Denis O'Hare, Melissa Leo, Jim Gaffigan

Director: Hilary Brougher

Rated: R for disturbing material involving teen pregnancy, sexual content and language

Opens today: Opera Plaza, S.F.

Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes