If you are among those who have seen their teenage years come and go you know that growing up, like breaking up, is hard to do. In a way they’re akin; maturing is breaking away from what you once were in order to become what you need to be to survive the rest of your life. And because this is such a profound experience — usually comprising many little disappointments, tragedies, and heartbreaks as much as victories and revelations big and small — it’s fertile ground for good storytelling. Such is the case with Miss Stevens, a road trip movie about growing up.
Acclaimed stage actress Lily Rabe is the titular character, Rachel Stevens, the unwitting chaperone to a trio of teenage dramatists — Billy (Timothée Chalamet), Margot (Lili Reinhart) and Sam (Anthony Quintal) — en route to a statewide acting competition. At the onset all of them fit neatly into pretty standard stereotypes: the goodie-two-shoes drama queen, the dark and brooding artist, the sassy gay minority friend. Over the course of the film, however, as they make awkward conversation in their very un-school-like atmosphere, all four of them experience awkward self-realizations, a sure sign maturing is taking place.
Anthony Quintal and Lili Reinhart
Clichés wouldn’t be cliché if they hadn’t earned the designation. Screenwriters Jordan Horowitz and Julia Hart play with one that’s surprisingly common despite being so highly taboo. In the immortal words of David Lee Roth, Billy is “hot for teacher.” It isn’t made explicit and it doesn’t need to be, though it’s certainly alluded to in conversation between Stevens and another chaperone, Walter, played by Rob Huebel. Walter is cheeky and flirtatious and oddly the more “grown up” of the two. He seems to not have a care in the world, but that’s because he has already made a decision about how to be (emotionally detached) so he doesn’t have to get involved and doesn’t have to think about it. He’s kind of a jerk, but he knows it and he owns it, which is why his character is actually really great. He’s kind of the anti-Stevens — immature on the outside but with his life secretly figured out.
Lily Rabe and Rob Huebel
As Stevens, Rabe does an excellent job of playing every interaction between the two of them with ambivalence and hesitation. Not every student crushes on a teacher, enough do to make it a trope. In this case it makes the scenes between Rabe and Chalamet very realistically uncomfortable. Billy is tall, brooding and clearly intelligent, which gives him an air of maturity that his baby face belies. She’s wound tight with concern, and rightfully so. Whenever he starts to send out feelers she shoots them down. When she does finally break down, it isn’t how you might expect. But in that moment she changes from a struggling, heartsick kid to a woman who has been hurt and emerged stronger for it. She also understands that Billy is just a kid who’s trying hard but in the wrong way to become an adult. It’s as if seeing how not to do it, she figures out how it’s supposed to be done.
Timothee Chalamet and Lily Rabe
This is also a lovely directorial debut for Julia Hart. She makes interesting directorial choices, like keeping her main character in soft focus or lingering on one face to catch its reactions rather than always showing who’s speaking. These kinds of techniques get us inside the minds of her characters, right where she wants us. Economical choices like those, like subtle uses of light and shadow, are what separate Miss Stevens from other films in the genre. Much like the cliché, this is the kind of formula film that proves the formula’s worth. It doesn’t get precious or rely on popular music cues to explain emotions; it’s all there on the characters’ faces.
Miss Stevens is the perfect kind of movie for dissection by classes filled with kids just like the kids in the movie. It neatly demonstrates how to write characters who reveal their true natures by their choice of monologue, how to present symbolism and foreshadowing, and how to evolve a character in the span of a scant 90 minutes. If the whole thing wraps up tidily in the end, it’s easy to feel like the characters earned that ending.
Miss Stevens opens September 16, 2016.
Photo credit: The Orchard
Top photo: From left to right, Timothee Chalamet, Lily Rabe, Anthony Quintal and Lili Reinhart.