Some films generate startling insight and quiet impact from a restrained, organic build. Miss Stevens, directed by Julia Hart, is one of those films. With a screenplay co-written with Jordan Horowitz, the film treads similar themes to other small independent films: contemporary loneliness and novel forms of connection, internal battles between suppression and expression. And whilst the film is not overly ambitious or ground-breaking, what it does well is explore and express these themes with a minimalism that belies its deceptive simplicity. The screenplay, and the rapport between the actors, are the strengths of the film, and endow it with a quiet, resonant power that lingers afterwards.
Rachel Stevens (Lily Rabe), a high school English teacher, has volunteered to take three students to a drama competition in California over a weekend: perky and organized Margot (Lili Reinhart), confident and flamboyant Sam (Anthony Quintal), and introverted and troubled Billy (Timothée Chalamet). Outside of a regular school environment, and prompted by pressing, sometimes tricky, questions from her students, it becomes increasingly apparent that Rachel has some unresolved personal issues which she is hiding away from others and herself. Her interactions with Billy in particular, who has his own demons to deal with, force her to acknowledge them, and there is an ambiguity and ambivalence to their relationship that gives the film an unpredictable, at times unsettling, edge.
Nevertheless, the film emanates a non-judgemental humanity. The dialogue, and its delivery, is uncomfortable and stilted at times, but this makes the conversations all the more grounded, real and authentic. The screenplay often takes surprising and humorous turns. Most importantly, it largely avoids coming across as contrived, and much of this is due to the easy rapport of the actors, especially between Rabe and Chalamet.
Rabe’s performance is quietly compelling. She traces Rachel’s character arc with layered ease, namely her growing (but hesitant) recognition of her inability to cope with her complex conflicted feelings and their suppression. She hides in plain sight, in the harsh, bright light of California. There is a simmering vacancy, a guarded ambivalence, behind her eyes, one that seemingly threatens to give way at any moment. She offers glimmers of the ‘hollowness’ within, of the practiced façade. She passively accepts the inertia of her life.
Chalamet’s performance is remarkable for its maturity and lack of vanity. He reveals a willingness to explore and delve into the darker aspects of his character’s psyche, including both his vulnerable and his manipulative sides. His monologue from Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman is fantastic – impassioned, raw, as if he can only express, vent and release his emotions in an acceptable way, ironically, through acting. It is a tricky meta-feat, and Chalamet pulls it off with aplomb.
Rachel and Billy both harbour, and even cultivate, feelings of being stuck, of wanting to change but not knowing how or where to begin. But their feelings eat away on the inside, and are all the more dangerous for their seeming mundanity. And as they spend more time with each other over the course of the weekend, their explorations of these conflicted feelings begin to blur the boundaries between roles and fronts, and between teachers and mentors. Thus, even though Miss Stevens covers some familiar thematic territory, it does so with an emotional intelligence and accomplished performances that make it a compelling character study.
Miss Stevens is now streaming on Netflix.