Just by the virtue of being an adult in a position of authority teachers are able to convey a certain level of control and levelheadedness over their students. Of course, not all students see teachers that way. The simple fact is that teachers are human being with their own set of flaws. Even on their worst days teachers need to keep up appearances, as presenting the slightest crack in the façade could lead to an onslaught of snarky, disrespectful behavior from a roomful of students. The debut directorial feature from Julia Hart, Miss Stevens offers a unique take on the teacher-student relationship through a charming story that blends comedy and drama over the course of a chaperoned trip over a weekend with a three young, disparate students. Miss Stevens is an assured debut feature that is anchored by an impressive performance from its star Lily Rabe.
Miss Stevens (Rabe) is the English teacher at a California high school, teaching the literary classics to her students. She’s reluctantly agreed to chaperone a trip of three students to a dramatic competition over the weekend. Joining Miss Stevens in her blue Volvo station wagon are Margot (Lili Reinhart), the ultra-organized student who excels at micromanaging; Sam (Anthony Quintal), the flamboyant young gay man; and Billy (Timothée Chalamet), a talented young man with a troubled streak. Over the course of the weekend, Margot must contend with the realization that she’s incapable of planning every minute detail; Sam must deal with teenage relationship woes; and Billy is struggling with his own infatuation with Miss Stevens, as well as his reputation of being a troublemaker. Throughout it all, though, Miss Stevens herself is dealing with some personal pain, often coping with her pain through the consumption of alcohol. Three days isn’t a long trip, but it certainly can feel like it when everyone is trying to keep themselves together.
A modestly budgeted independent film, Miss Stevens heavily relies on its actors to carry the film, and each performer is more than up to the task. As the lead, Lily Rabe gives the finest performance of her burgeoning career. A lot of demanded of Rabe in the role, but she’s able to convey every disparate emotion required with an amazing sense of naturalism. To balance out Rabe’s performance are the three strong performances from the trio of young actors, each excellent in their roles. Anthony Quintal is the more overtly comedic of the group as boisterous Sam. Encapsulating the spirit of every overachiever is Lili Reinhart, who devolves into an almost manic state when her intricate plans are met with the slightest resistance. Rounding out the young cast is the nuanced performance by Timothée Chalamet, whose character is the most troubled of the teens but avoids playing the role as something out of an after school special. Chalamet captures the spirit of so many disaffected teens, moody and full of angst as he tries to figure out his place in the world.
The screenplay by Hart and Jordan Horowitz works a delicate balance between comedy and drama. Miss Stevens is a character that doesn’t have everything in her life figured out, but she’s not an irredeemable fuck-up. She’s a flawed character working through the issues that come with life. As a teacher, she’s not perfect but her heart is always in the right place and she put forth the effort to be a better educator. The movie seamlessly transitions in its tones, with some powerful emotional moments shifting into comedic moments. Hart and Horowitz present a deft touch in maintaining an emotional honesty through the stories many tonal shifts, by no means an easy feat.
Julia Hart has already proven herself to be a strong screenwriter with her work on last year’s The Keeping Room, but stepping behind the camera as a director for the first time she displays a new set of talents to compliment her writing. Miss Stevens features marvelous shots that aren’t showy but always work in service to the story. One shot of a distraught Miss Stevens lying in her hotel bed only illuminated by the soft light beside her otherwise surrounded by darkness is just one example of Hart employing imagery to accentuate the story. Between the film’s framing and blocking of actors, the briskly paced editing, and strong performances, Julia Hart has one of the most assured directorial debuts of recent memory.
Miss Stevens is an infinitely charming movie with an emotionally honest core. It’s a story that takes on the notion that anyone has it all together, even teachers. Life presents us with a problems, some that we can prepare for and others we can’t, but it’s never about having the answers; it’s about how we face moments of adversity. Miss Stevens hits such a large range of emotions throughout its running time that it’s very likely you won’t have a chance to wipe away your tears before you start laughing. Not many movies can do that so effectively. Everyone can find something to learn from Miss Stevens.