Going in, it is tempting to make a great deal of assumptions about Miss Stevens, because its outer-most layer feels like familiar territory. An unhappy female High School teacher takes three students to a weekend drama competition, and a transformative experience ensues. This is a dramatic plot device that we have seen play out many times on the big screen but – as the film begins its powerful opening sequence, set to the haunting musical saw stylings of Natalia Paruz – it quickly becomes clear that Miss Stevens is actually something else entirely.
This is the directorial debut of Julia Hart (The Keeping Room), who co-wrote the screenplay with producer, Jordan Horowitz (La La Land). What has been created is a stunning work of misdirection, though it is neither contrived nor manipulative. Rather, it works in concert with the habitual expectations of the audience to weave a tale run-through with absolute truth. Every time we feel confident that we can predict the next beat of this film, we are gently reminded that this is not the case. We are on a comedic, dramatic excursion with Miss Stevens, and all bets are most assuredly off.
At the centre of this story is our titular heroine, played with searing honesty by Lily Rabe. As teacher Rachel Stevens she is, put simply, one of the most well-drawn characters of recent years – purposefully masking untold stresses, strains and insecurities in order to function within the confines of her responsibilities to others. As an adult, she plays many roles for many people – she is teacher to her students, employee to her Principal, and potential conquest to the men she encounters (in whom she sometimes sees herself reflected). Rarely does she get to be her whole self, but when those few moments do occur, we see her hit a harmonic frequency that cuts straight to the heart.
The students she is tasked with shepherding for the weekend are equally vibrant in their characterization, and equally much more than we first assume them to be. Margot (Lili Reinhart) appears to be striving for perfection, but is actually carving out a path that could have an impact far beyond her own, narrow experience. Sam (Anthony Quintal) is approaching the competition with ambitious fervour, but is striving to embrace the next stage of his life – actively seeking romance among new acquaintances. Billy (Timothee Chalamet) is labelled with a behaviour disorder, but is striving to safely free himself of a medicated life. As a group, the four of them are people in need of a sense of connection – and are attempting to define the terms and boundaries of those connections as they inevitably begin to develop during the trip.
This momentum among the characters – each propelled through their own, well-defined character arc – lends a pace to Miss Stevens that is, for the most part, consistent and effective in a way that delivers us to the final reel feeling that we too have been on this journey. That being said, there is a notable moment, deep in the middle, where the film deliberately slows. It is a moment that is necessary – for the arc of Rachel, the arc of Billy, and the arc of the film as a whole – but it is actually chance for Rachel Stevens to catch her breath.
It feels perilously close to stalling the film, yet we are kept from that by the confident choice of director Julia Hart, and a masterful scene from lead actress Lily Rabe – in which she painfully and beautifully reveals her truth. The dialogue here is heavily weighted, with the word “have” being heftiest of all in a conversation about profound loss. She could just as easily be addressing the audience directly when, darkly amused, she asks, “You thought I was going to tell you a story about some horrible guy who’s ruined men for me forever?” The story is not that, which is refreshing in itself. None of this is about romantic love – and as this pivotal pause is allowed to unfold in its own time, and at its own pace, we realize that our habitual audience expectation, to be swept along by unrelenting plot beats, only serves to cocoon us from reality by cushioning difficult moments. Miss Stevens, on the other hand, is reality laid bare.
The film is sumptuously layered with a number of intersecting themes – the restrictions placed upon us by ourselves, and by society; the complexities of communicating with others; the nature of identity; the contrast of the social roles played by men and women; the vast difference between physical and emotional intimacy; the ebb and flow of the human experience. These themes are revealed and explored with excellent writing, glorious visual artistry, and precise musical cues. Each character is allowed a satisfying story arc, while embracing the fact that there is no fairy-tale ending, for anybody. As the teacher explains to her student, not everything can be fixed. That’s reality.
What we are ultimately left with is a depiction of the modern, compartmentalized life and, most importantly, validation. It is the revolutionary idea that absolute perfection is neither necessary nor particularly valuable, because it is simply the gilded cage held aloft by a society obsessed with materialism and status. At a time when global discourse is perhaps at its most toxic and judgemental, Miss Stevens tells us that it’s just fine for each of us to be who we are, to do what we do, and to feel what we feel – and that’s like a gift from your favourite teacher.
Miss Stevens is a moving comedy-drama that works in concert with the habitual expectations of the audience to weave a tale that's run-through with absolute truth.