It needs to be stated from the outset, that the directorial debut of The Keeping Room's writer, Julia Hart, has massive flaw at it's heart. The hot English teacher thing is a complete myth. My English teacher was terrible. The fact that I discovered Shakespeare via her lessons was because I ignored her and just got lost in the text. Her only saving grace, while totally missing the point of James Vance Marshall's Walkabout, was she did show us the film and that introduced me to the glorious world of Nicolas Roeg. So, in a round about way, she was good, definitely not hot and I never fancied her. That aside completely superfluous ramble aside, Miss Stevens is a film that I honestly didn't think I'd see again. It is joyous, full of heart and populated with a believable, relatable cast of characters that subtlety draws you in, breaks your heart and then pops it back together again.
Miss Stevens opens with our titular Rachel Stevens (Lily Rabe) being overcome at the theatre and unable, or perhaps unwilling, to leave. We cut to Miss Steven's English class the next day where they are discussing The Great Gatsby and Miss Stevens is composed and performing before her class. Here we are introduced to the rather uptight Margot (Lili Reinhart), the quiet, troubled Billy (Timothee Chalamet) and, eventually, Sam (Anthony Quintal). This trio are the theatre kids who Miss Stevens has agreed to take to a State level competition where they will preform monologues and where hopefully a win will trigger some arts funding at their school. This setup (teacher road tripping with kids) is one we've seen before. The execution however, is something else. Through the slightly bickering car ride to the competition, we get to know the characters and we see a divide between teacher and students which, in modern cinema, would have been killed off in the classroom scene. The back and forth is funny and utterly believable, as is the excellent use of swearing, something that is rarely pulled off so well these days. The script (written by Hart and husband Jordan Horowitz, who also produces) is clever, drawing out the characters and developing them and the story together. We see that the kids have troubles, as has Miss Stevens. But they are both of very different natures and the ways, to varying levels of success, that they work through them is very real, honest, heartbreaking and funny. A heady mix to attempt and one pulled off with aplomb. The direction of the film reminded me of John Hughes movies in it's framing but the way it flows, almost seamlessly, from one scene to the next is beautifully done. This flow adds to the connection you have with these characters. The boundaries between them evolve and yet remain and this add to the complexity and the heart of the tale. Clocking in at an economical 86 minutes, the film never seems rushed, the plot unfolding easily and leading to a believable and touching finale.
I went off a tad at the beginning because that is the only problem I had with Miss Stevens. I come to the film as a fully paid up Julia Hart fan and any worries I had about her move behind the camera are fully dispelled. If I hadn't known this was a film by a first time director, I would never had guessed, such is the confidence and ease with which Miss Stevens is executed. Hart's direction is subtle and purposeful, moving the story along with fluidity and allowing her cast to really live on the screen. As she had in Brit Marling in The Keeping Room, in Lily Rabe, Hart has an actor that fully embraces and inhabits her character, appearing fully formed on screen in that first, heartfelt shot. Rabe's performance is stunning. Hart may now have two muses.
Whenever you finish watching a film with a smile on your face and tears on your cheeks, you know you have got your money's worth. Miss Stevens is delightful in the truest form of the word. Please go find it and enjoy a beautiful film from a filmmaker with a very exciting future ahead of her.
Miss Stevens is available on demand right now.