SXSW Review: “Miss Stevens”

We’ve all had a teacher like Miss Stevens. Maybe they assigned a book you devoured in one night, and then you came to class the next day bubbling with anxiety over whether or not to speak up, proving that you care. Maybe they let you stay in the classroom during lunch to work on a project, and the chasm of silence between the two of you was bridged by conversation that could be considered friendly. Maybe they tried to understand all of your adolescent problems — and when I say adolescent, I do not mean trivial — and spoke with you not just in a friendly way, but with the air of camaraderie that you craved. Maybe they were pretty. Maybe you had a crush on them.

All of these possibilities are explored in  Miss Stevens (written and directed by Julia Hart, herself a former teacher). The film follows Stevens (Lily Rabe) as she chaperones a weekend trip to a drama competition with students Margot (Lili Reinhart), Sam (Anthony Quintal) and Billy (Timothee Chalamet). The three kids are, at first, pretty archetypal — in a post-Glee world, anyway. Margot is a prim, neurotic grade grubber, Sam is gay, effervescent, and set on having a fling while away, and Billy is a jean-jacketed Bad Boy. I’m glad to say that these broad characterizations break down once the four are stuffed in Stevens’s Subaru, where Billy makes the bold but narrative-driving move of taking the passenger’s seat next to his teacher.

Stevens and Billy’s relationship is the center of the film, and their interactions the primary source of romantic tension. Starting in the car, for instance, they find they share a love of the Oldies station, singing along to an old America song while the other two kids sit back, aghast.  Billy is a sensitive kid, and Stevens can’t help but confide in him as his attempts to pal around with her become more aggressive. As unsettling as their relationship becomes — and Stevens is aware of this: she tries to rebuff Billy, always at odds with how that might affect him emotionally — both student and teacher find relief in letting down their guard. Stevens’s mother recently died, her writing career is stalled, and she finds teaching to be an often alienating profession. Billy, although behaviorally unstable at times, is exactly the kind of student she wants: excited about the material, willing to explore his gift (in this case, acting), and attentive to her emotional needs. But he’s still only a kid.

Rabe’s performance adds necessary nuance to their budding relationship; her face is stamped with concern for the situation and how it may be perceived at all times, especially when the other kids are around to see them together. As a viewer, you are constantly nervous for Stevens to get caught, even though their relationship never becomes physical. The narrative tension of this will-they-won’t-they scenario is what keeps you on edge, but does so at the cost of cheapening whatever tender moments can be found in this 90-minute long squirm session. It is, frankly, uncomfortable to imagine them together. Their chemistry becomes distractingly inappropriate and instead made me question why, exactly, an intimacy like this has to be expressed with sexual undertones. I felt like I was waiting for Stevens to slip up every time she mentioned her mother, her writing, or her general melancholy. To code emotional intimacy as inherently romantic or sexual was a misstep for Hart, and an especially grave disservice to a film that is otherwise visually dynamic and well cast.

In the Q&A after the film, Hart expanded on the complexity the relationship, speaking about the confusing qualities intimacy can take on when you’re young and seeking some type of concrete connection. At that age, emotional and mental boundaries get blurred — and while I empathized all too well with this after the film, the experience of watching it still left me sour.

Miss Stevens is a film about how intimacy grows between two people who, despite age, disposition, and occupation, can find some common emotional ground to tread. Though filled with performances that range from good to excellent — Rabe won Best Actress at the juried SXSW competition — Miss Steven’s romantic tension drowns out whatever emotional complexity it it’s striving for.

Featured image courtesy of SXSW.


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