Educating the Educator in Miss Stevens

Teachers, we love ’em. We love them so much that there’s an entire genre of features devoted to educators who inspire us. The latest in educational drama is Miss Stevens, the directorial debut of Julia Hart. (Hart wrote the feminist Western The Keeping Room.) Miss Stevens is a sensitive foray into the teacher drama that doesn’t leap over convention so much as gives it a warm hug, anchored by an entrancing performance by Lily Rabe.

Rachel Stevens is a high school English teacher struggling with her mother’s recent death. On a weekend trip to a drama convention, Miss Stevens and her three students learn about each other and what the future holds for them.

Hart, with co-screenwriter Jordan Horowitz, follows a familiar path with her story of a damaged teacher and her equally unstable students. The revelations aren’t particularly new: Teens have issues! Adults don’t have it all figured out! What Hart does do is alleviate those plot conventions with stellar performances.

Image courtesy of The Orchard

Lily Rabe is a reason to jump into any movie blind and Miss Stevens works on her performance. Rabe’s ability to convey her broken heart while sitting in an empty theater after a show establishes a level of flair the other actors try to match. Rachel is all business in the classroom; I could watch Lily Rabe teach One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest all day! It isn’t until her car drives away from the school, with her students in tow, that the boundaries between professional and personal dim. The kids ask questions about her age, whether she’s a lesbian. When her car breaks down her first reaction is to start cursing. Her relationship with a troubled teen named Billy (Timothee Chalamet) threatens to turn this into a Lifetime movie, but Hart skillfully sidesteps the smut angle.

Rachel finds herself aware of the professional ethics but desperate to inform the kids that school isn’t the end of the world. The hardest question for her to answer is whether she’ll make a difference in these kids’ lives. The threshold between being the voice of adulthood and young enough to relate keeps Rachel on a tightrope that perpetually threatens to snap. The kids think her music is old, yet Rachel sees it as a confidence booster. Her unspoken theme song, America’s “Sister Golden Hair” plays as the group enters the conference, only to abruptly stop when they discovers no one’s around to witness their entrance. These moments leave Rachel awkward, neither a student fascinated by the world nor an adult broken by it.

Outside of Billy’s obvious mental issues, her other students deals with issues of perfection and dating. Chalamet and Rabe’s characters are the most fleshed out because they’re parallels of each other, but actors Lili Reinhart and Anthony Quintal are solid. Quintal’s character Sam, with his exaggerated flamboyancy and vocal affectations, threatens to become a gay stereotype. Thankfully, Quintal’s such a likable breath of fresh air that the character’s flaws melt away.

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The sentimentality is hard to ignore, and much of the film feels like a subdued cross between Bad Teacher and Half Nelson. Rachel tries to ignore her problems by sleeping with another teacher she meets at the conference, with the expected consequences. Her relationship with Billy broaches on the unethical and though Rachel resists, the film’s authenticity up to that point leaves the moment unwarranted. It’s also hard to understand why a boy like Billy, who comes off as anti-establishment, is a drama fan at all (Chalamet’s ending monologue shows off why).

The typical indie aesthetics are alive and well with Miss Stevens. The soundtrack is quirky; if “Sister Golden Hair” wasn’t available I’d assume they’d use George Harrison’s “What is Life.” The cast of characters present introspective, if reductive, looks at life. Miss Stevens thrives on Rabe’s performance, with the trio of teens close behind. Julia Hart proves herself an adept director and I’m excited to watch her career blossom from there. Miss Stevens is a substantial star to a host of promising talent.


Originally published at culturess.com on September 21, 2016.

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