Movie Review: Miss Stevens (2016)

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Similar to the way that a gun shown to viewers in the first half of her terrifically thought-provoking feminist western The Keeping Room is bound to go off in the last, screenwriter turned director Julia Hart draws upon her love of subtext and symbolism once again in her contemporary-set character study Miss Stevens.  

Inspired by the years she spent working as a high school teacher, the film – penned by Hart and her husband, producer and co-scripter Jordan Horowitz – is tailor-made for its charismatic lead, frequent American Horror Story lead Lily Rabe (daughter of the late great actress Jill Clayburgh).

A well-deserved recipient of a South by Southwest Best Actress Award for her eponymous turn as a high school English teacher in the midst of an existential crisis who's been tasked with chaperoning three students to a young dramatists competition for a weekend out-of-town, in the film's initially ambiguous opening scene, Rabe's teary face fills the screen.

Seemingly on autopilot, by the next time see her in front of a classroom, Miss Stevens is in full teacher mode, asking her students to find some individual semblance of meaning in what they've read in order to make it their own.

And it's in this moment when we understand that, much like the gun in Hart's western predecessor or the temporary fix of a spare tire put on Miss Stevens' car shortly into the movie, it's only a matter of time before she'll have to take her own teacherly advice and look for meaning in order to repair what's needed in her own life for good.

Steeped in authenticity, Hart's aforementioned classroom scene is so richly detailed that you can practically smell the chalk dust and sense the lingering, palpable apathy of its clock-watching students. Needless to say, viewers who’ve worked in schools (like yours truly) are sure to relate to Miss Stevens on a cellular level.

Reminiscent of a long lost Fox Searchlight picture from that company’s heyday of dysfunctional dramedies in the mid-aughts, although it’s a relative in spirit to Little Miss Sunshine (by way of The Breakfast Club), Miss Stevens would also pair nicely with Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s Juno and Young Adult as tonally it lands somewhere in between the two.

Light on plot and heavy on mood, although each distinct character has their own point of view, aside from the remarkably talented yet troubled Billy (played to perfection by scene-stealer and future Call Me By Your Name Oscar nominee Timothee Chalamet), unfortunately we're given very little information about the rest of the students, which makes them hard to fully relate to or get to know.

Yet despite this missing component, the behavior of Billy's classmates (well played by Riverdale's Lili Reinhart and Anthony Quintal) still rings true, which is an impressive feat in its own right. Credit should be given to the film’s screenwriters not only for that but also for refusing to push the relationship between the teacher and Billy (who’s nursing a major crush on Stevens) into salacious, cliched, and sadly all too familiar Cinemax territory.

A far cry from typical depictions of older powerful men and worshipful Lolita-like young vixens, in a gender-flipped twist, Miss Stevens reminds us of just what a vital difference a male vs. female gaze can make when a woman is given the chance to tell her own story and direct it.

And while I can't help but wonder how much stronger Stevens would’ve been with a slightly more expanded point-of-view to elevate the two other students beyond one-sentence descriptions in subplots of their very own, the film's small budget was most likely its Achilles heel.

Although it suffers slightly from a rushed and admittedly contrived (though nonetheless charming) final act, the humanistic commitment shown to Miss Stevens’ characters by its cast and crew are as moving and meaningful as any competitive monologue can be. In the end, the teacher was right after all – symbolic actions speak louder than these highly verbal students’ words and there's enough meaning in that for me.

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