43. Miss Stevens, directed by Julia Hart

43. Miss Stevens, directed by Julia Hart

Letting Go and Grabbing Hold

By Rose Marel

We’ve all heard of the saying that ‘Those who can’t do, teach’. But for all the crap people hurl at teachers, it can be a bloody difficult occupation. What people don’t consider is that high-school teaching is a psychological tough-mudder, a playground of angst and confusion on which they’re also expected to play. Tutoring teenagers on curriculum is one thing, but being emotionally instructive is another. Thus, for Miss Stevens, a weekend excursion with three students proves to be the ultimate challenge in education – both in providing it, and receiving it.

Self-elected (by unfortunate default) to chaperone three students to a drama competition, Rachel Stevens (played with incredible depth by Lily Rabe) is tasked with driving them, eating with them, staying with them and accompanying them to every competition round. From the get-go we’re aware of Miss Stevens’ humanity – we are given access to her private life and emotions rather than viewing her purely as ‘teacher’. We open with a close-up of her face, wavering in reaction to something unseen. There’s power even in these small moments, including another brief shot of Rachel inhaling in front of a mirror, psyching herself up before the start of a school day.

We soon become well-acquainted with Rachel’s appointed kids: Anthony Quintal’s Sam (flamboyantly upbeat), Lili Reinhart’s studious Margot (not the best at drama but a perpetual tryer), and the glorious Timothee Chalamet’s Billy (an incredible talent attached to warnings of mental instability). They’re not like the normal high-school students portrayed in Hollywood movies, who are bored by school and buried in technology. Instead, they’re engaging and curious, which makes for a richer discovery of their personalities, and a greater investment in them as characters.

Almost immediately, the teacher/student barriers begin to erode, beginning with Margot’s observation that, in spite of countless contact hours, none of them really know her. These barricades are ones that Miss Stevens intends on maintaining, to preserve the right level of professional detachment, and to ensure that the power dynamics extend beyond the school’s physical grounds. The real reason though, may be more along the lines of self-preservation. Like some kind of survival mechanism, Rachel resists too deep a personal connection with her students in an unwillingness to fully expose her flawed nature, preferring instead to hide behind the illusion of ‘teacher’. Ultimately, there’s a distinction between Rachel and Miss Stevens, and the fact that the kids start hanging out with Rachel begins to scare her. How much of Rachel bleeds into Miss Stevens? And how much should she allow them to intersect? As an audience, we’ve seen the distinction, and it doesn’t take too long before the switch is flipped.

Image result for miss stevens 2016

The casual nature of a road trip allows for this involuntary slip from her ‘teacher mode’, beginning when her car experiences problems and leads to an inadvertent explosion of profanity (much to her student’s shock). From there, it becomes a constant loosening and reigning in of her true self, dispatching advice or anecdotes when needed, and restraining herself when not. These notions of her private and public personas – or the professional versus the personal – become primary themes in the story. More than a wall, it’s really a line, but establishing one and then maintaining it are virtually impossible, especially when Billy harbours a crush on Rachel. Struggling with his own melancholy “behavioural condition”, Billy is hugely talented and wildly perceptive, and he can’t help being drawn to Miss Stevens. In her he sees, among other things, his own brokenness.

So then, Rachel’s struggle deepens. Yes, Billy’s intentions may just be rooted in the benign recognition of a fellow struggling individual, but it certainly changes the complexity of Miss Steven’s difficulties. Additional considerations must be made, like: when is it acceptable to be a shoulder to cry on? Or to let the barriers fall? How do the circumstances change? The pairs’ connection and inherent relatedness to each other are hindered only by Rachel’s reservations, being cognisant of respecting social and professional boundaries. Hart purposively plays with this push and pull, until it becomes the emotional core around which the entire film gravitates.

Thankfully though, Miss Stevens refuses to relax into stereotypical storylines – this isn’t a story about inappropriate relations. Without being drawn into this potential slipstream, the movie hints at the ease with which it could. But it goes further than that, concerning itself instead with interconnection and our shared humanity. Rachel personifies the messiness of life, and all our attempts to organise it. The rapport between the pair is a tender one of almost equal standing, and occasionally a trusting vulnerability is needed in order to heal. Plus, we see that the students have a revitalising effect on Miss Steven, by evoking old, forgotten memories of her own youth.

Image result for miss stevens julia hart

Staying close to the emotion, Hart masterfully uses subtlety and selective revelations of vulnerability to enrich her story. Whether it’s longer, charged exchanges between Billy and Rachel, or just snatches where she’s lost in music, there’s an added intricacy that raises it above the standard high-school dramedy. Tantamount to this are the incredible performances by her leading cast. Lily Rabe (who you may know from American Horror Story, but who’s also a seasoned theatre actress) holds the film, along with the breathtaking Timothee Chalamet. They’re complicated characters, and while they’re both weighted with a certain inner darkness, they counter this with humour and lightness. The riveting scene where Billy performs his Death Of A Salesman monologue (one I could watch all day), is testament to Chalament’s acting skills, while laying bare his character’s real, intense internal landscape.

My only reservation with Miss Stevens was the dim lighting choices during two key scenes with Billy and Rachel, in which they both open up. Shed of her ‘teacher’ container, and caught in moments of true connection, they’re scenes that encapsulate the emotional foundation of the film. Drenching the character’s faces in darkness may be a stylistic choice, evoking a sense of confessional freedom, yet it denies the moviegoer a front seat visual. By masking the character’s full expressions and reactions, it feels like both the viewers and actors are somehow cheated. That said, it’s a small gripe, and the tone of the film remains consistent. Funny, touching and relatable, Miss Stevens highlights that shared humanity is the strongest adhesive, and that it’s never too late to rediscover yourself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *