Miss Stevens (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
Lily Rabe has a face of an intriguing portrait, one that we can analyze for hours and extract a lot of meaning. In “Miss Stevens,” written by Julia Hart and Jordan Horowitz, she portrays a high school teacher with a deep sadness to her character. Right from the opening scene, viewers looking for a character worth studying are likely to be drawn to the performance. There is gloom in those eyes and yet there is a strength, too. Immediately we cannot help but ask ourselves whether Miss Stevens’ melancholy is due to a recent breakup, a death of a loved one, a bitter unhappiness in her chosen career path, or perhaps she is simply touched by the play she had just seen. The film unfolds in a most assured manner.
There is insight in the way all characters are written. Particularly impressive is in how Billy (Timothée Chalamet), Margot (Lili Reinhart), and Sam (Anthony Quintal) are realized as flesh and bone teenagers with real thoughts, complex feelings, and at times refreshing reactions to the challenges that face them. Although Miss Stevens is clearly the main protagonist, there are insight, intelligence, and intrigue to the people that surround her. The plot involves the teacher taking her students to an acting competition over one weekend. But a whole lot more is going on underneath despite a nondescript surface.
Especially brave—and refreshing—is the manner in which an underaged teenage crush toward an adult is handled. Certainly there is tinge of humor to it, but the material never lets go of the pain and longing when it comes unreciprocated feelings. Billy is attracted to Miss Stevens and the film dares to walk that fine line with elegance and grace rather than shying away from the topic completely or—worse—brushing it under the rug when it becomes too uncomfortable.
There is beauty in the way the student-teacher relationship is explored; we actually wonder how it would have been like for the both of them had Billy been ten years older or if Miss Stevens were a decade younger. Would they have connected so powerfully then or would they have missed that spark entirely? A fascinating case can be made that it would likely have been the latter. Chalamet commands a magnetic presence and he more than holds his own especially when Rabe is required to deliver during the more emotional scenes that depict her character’s inner turmoil.
“Miss Stevens,” directed by Julia Hart, is about juggling private and public spheres. The fact that our heroine is an educator is no accident. In a way, it is the perfect profession for this particular story. There is a scene in the film where two teachers discuss the complexity and simplicity of the job. That duality, whether it really is as complex or as simple as it seems, depends largely on two factors: perspective and approach. But that’s not all. Are we truly and entirely capable of separating our private and public lives when every day the two worlds mesh so thoroughly, especially in this day and age where it can be argued that classic definitions of public and private lives no longer apply?