1 Hr., 27 Mins.
Miss Stevens January 26, 2018
he presence of an inspiring teacher is always a welcome addition in a particularly strong teen movie. In The Edge of Seventeen (2016), a smarmy, Woody Harrelson-portrayed instructor became a warm, quasi-confidant to our melodramatic 16-year-old heroine. In Easy A (2010), the protagonist’s English teacher was one of the few people she felt as though she could talk to and be taken seriously. And in the quintessential teacher/student relationship-driven movie, Stand and Deliver (1988), a stiff-lipped math professor's unyielding resolve turned a flagging school into an academically
successful one, and helped change the lives of his pupils as a result.
Julia Hart’s Miss Stevens (2016) similarly revolves around the relationships between an educator and her students, but different this time around is that the teacher needs some help herself. She is Rachel (Lily Rabe), a 29-year-old high school English instructor in the midst of something of a quarter-life crisis. It's easy to see why: her mom’s just died, her romantic relationships have mostly tanked, and she still doesn’t feel as though she’s found her passion in life. She’s at a crossroads. The bottle’s increasingly becoming a friend to whom she can turn in times of need.
But for a weekend during the slow-moving school year, she must pull herself together: she’s volunteered to escort a group of students to a thespian conference a couple towns over. In tow are Margot (Lili Reinhart), a snippy soccer mom in the making; Sam (Anthony Quintal), a drama queen who takes everything much too personally; and Billy (Timothée Chalamet, sensational), an angsty but highly intelligent introvert who possesses more acting talent than all his classmates combined.
We’re certain this trip’s going to go south from the get go. The car in which Rachel’s transporting the kids gets a flat tire mid-excursion. Margot’s prone to doting like a stage mother. Billy has a behavioral disorder that enforces an intensity that sometimes makes all traveling with him ever so slightly uncomfortable. Rachel has a hard time keeping her language clean and her demons hidden. Only Sam seems to have it together, though midway through the film does he have a maddening love connection with a flakey theater geek from a different school that doesn’t work out, causing a burst of emotion. Certainly, the weekend’ll be a memorable one – just maybe not exactly for all the reasons everyone’d expect.
As Miss Stevens moves along, noticeable is that its storyline isn’t all too streamlined: where we’d elsewhere expect the focal Rachel to have a positive impact on her students or vice versa, the film instead proves itself a messy slice of life wherein no one has it figured out and probably won’t for the years to come. The scope is small and the ambitions aren’t big – ultimately making even the most intelligent of its implications ones to be forgotten in the weeks post-viewing – but what Hart (who makes her directorial debut here) does with Miss Stevens is still potent.
She, with the help of co-screenwriter Jordan Horowitz, effectively develops a set of characters we almost immediately like and recognize. Sometimes we can even see components of ourselves in them. Billy’s inability to make much sense of his emotional highs and lows is relatable. Margot’s slow recognition that she can’t always be the best at everything is universal. Sam’s tendency to always think the world’s perennially crashing down is constantly felt. Rachel’s inability to hide the fact that she’s sad and lost even when putting on the Miss Stevens guise is easy to understand.
The movie makes some sharp observations in the process – like the idea that even once you think you have your life together, you still might not be “okay” – and as an effect brings out competent performances from its cast. Rabe and Chalamet are particularly strong: Rabe has a way of conveying a deep hurt in her teary blue eyes even when she’s trying to keep on a mask of professional resolve, and Chalamet comfortably inhabits mercuriality in such a manner that makes his character’s pressing of the eponymous Miss Stevens (but are you really doing fine, he wants to know) stirring rather than bothersome. (Chalamet also delivers a monologue toward the movie’s end that acts as something of a foreshadowing to the performative strength he showed in this year’s Oscar movies Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name.)
These characters are all waiting for their lives to take a turn for the better, and once we arrive at the film’s conclusion are we certain that this weekend’s somehow helped them all get a better sense of who they are. Self-actualization might still be far out of reach. But it’s closer. And if there’s anything Miss Stevens conveys well, it’s that idea that powering through the days and weeks and months even when everything seems totally fucked will be worth it in the long run. B
This review also appeared on Verge Campus.