Early in "Case 39," Renée Zellweger's overburdened social worker, Emily, complains to her boss ( Adrian Lester) that she's buried in 38 active cases, right before he plops the file for you-know-what on her desk. One can't help experiencing the same dread about the exhausting flood of lackluster horror films that swamp our screens and, as "Case 39" unfolds, realizing we're enduring one more.
It didn't have to be that way, considering screenwriter Ray Wright's initially nifty setup. When presented with Lily, a pale, withdrawn and abused 10-year-old girl (Jodelle Ferland), and her even paler, more hollowed-out and sneery parents acting suspiciously, what's a do-gooder workaholic like Emily to do? The issue is forced when Mom and Dad shove Lily into the oven one night, then try to kill Emily and her cop friend, Mike ( Ian McShane), as they intervene just in time. But when Emily decides to take Lily in herself, the girl's increasingly precocious manner — and some tragic, seemingly unexplained events — lead Emily to believe her folks might have been on to something. Let's just say this is not a film for impending foster parents.