In a year in which the SXSW Film headliners were dominated by men - it’s true, bro! - in front of and behind the camera, the indie entry Miss Stevens was a welcome respite from the, well, sausage party.
In her feature directorial debut, Julia Hart (who co-wrote the script with husband Jordan Horowitz) mines her eight years spent as a teacher to tell a coming-of-ages story for both teenagers and nearly-thirty-somethings, groups that turn out to be not all that dissimilar. Hart cleverly delivers that message using a relationship between the titular character Rachel Stevens (Lily Rabe), a 29-year-old high school English teacher, and one of the students she’s chaperoning at an out-of-town drama competition. Audience members jumping to conclusions just by seeing the word “relationship” in the same sentence as “student” and “teacher” in the plot summary is precisely what Hart wants, as she made clear during a question and answer session after the film’s first SXSW screening. She doesn’t mind people approaching Miss Stevens with set expectations; she’s banking on them leaving the theatre pleasantly surprised.
Films such as Starter for 10 and Rocket Science come to mind as we see the rag-tag group of students — troubled Billy (Timothée Chalamet), overachieving Margot (Lili Reinhart), and friendly and gay Sam (Anthony Quintal) - pile into Rachel’s aging station wagon to head to their competition. You’re immediately rooting for them, even if they’re hitting some familiar teen character beats, and it’s a shame we don’t spend much time with the students during the actual competition, save for a few great scenes including a moving monologue by Chalamet. But this is ultimately Rachel’s movie.
As Miss Stevens, she’s the adult figure responsible for the safety and well-being of teenagers she’s not necessarily always wiser than. Hart and Horowitz paint a believable picture of a woman in emotional pain and professional confusion, making poor choices one minute, but still able to offer straightforward, comforting advice the next. She’s delightfully flawed; haunted and broken, but not comically so - she’s neither a caricature out of Bad Teacher nor a saint. She’s single, and even more refreshing, her behavior isn’t stemming from the lack of a partner or being hurt by one. And no matter what, she’s a part of her students’ lives, even as she’s encouraged by other teachers, such as Rob Huebel’s questionable Walter, to check out at the end of the school day and not look back.
Rabe, who won special jury recognition for best actress for the role, is deliberate in her delivery, taking her time in scenes and helping foster a feeling of authenticity. Little feels more real than her character’s connection with Billy, like-minded and equally lost. To deny their bond - no matter how that bond is viewed by the individuals at play - or paint it one color would be a disservice not only to their story but to the greater message: that we’re all screwed up in our own way, and in that way, we’re the same. Teachers are students and students are teachers, and so on. Miss Stevens delivers this lesson with care.
Sarah Carlson still misses Mad Men. A lot. You can find her on Twitter.