Robin Write looks at the 2016 independent entry Miss Stevens, starring Lily Rabe as a teacher chaperoning students to a state drama competition.
By Robin Write
Whether the flourishing Netflix platform for feature films has garnered a straight-to-video feel may be a matter of opinion, but a notion that warrants much more prestige when you compare the accessibility and quality of the digital age over the videotape culture of the 1980s. Regardless, there would be little reason not to venture off to see Miss Stevens on the big screen where it on general release in that format (if you were fortunate to catch it at SXSW or on its limited release late last year). Directed by Julia Hart (yay, another woman) in her directorial debut (yay, another newcomer), and co-written with Jordan Horowitz (La La Land producer and Best Picture announcement corrector), the film follows several familiar and alluring narrative strands on the winding, short-term path to a tempered, turbulent teacher tale worthy of your attention.
Those, like me, curious to see more of Lily Rabe flexing her acting muscles outside of the American Horror Story series, may have ample here to keep them watching – after all many would argue she was the most refreshing character actress of that franchise. In Miss Stevens, Rabe provides a significant amount of leading lady poise to keep this movie ticking over. Her teacher has to stand her ground with professional ethics, not only in the narrative’s field trip scenery with some rather vibrant teenagers, but also keeping her feet on the ground in terms of holding one troubled boy at bay who clearly takes a shine to her. Rabe portrays a woman who wears her heart and moral code on her sleeve, but fascinatingly also shows a vulnerability, and cracks emerging on her apparent sense of control.
Although the film Miss Stevens fails to delve deep, deep into any form of student / teacher relationship, mental health issues of the main characters, the teacher’s life goals, or indeed the drama competition they are attending, its success is in allowing those themes to simmer in an understated, uncompromising fashion. The fact “that kid has talent” is one main strands of the narrative, but is hardly given the time of day kind of works, as while this is not exactly Good Will Hunting or Dangerous Minds, Miss Stevens is all too aware not to force feed those branches until they snap.
Who knows if Rabe will continue to pursue roles like these in film as well as television, the grounded, everywoman role certainly suits her (a opposed to, say, voodoo vixen, or nutty nun). The support cast, those pesky kids, are fine too, Timothée Chalamet, Lili Reinhart, and Anthony Quintal all bring with them a true sense of brimming teenage angst and excitement, in line with their respective characters. Miss Stevens feels like an art project showing signs of captivating, intriguing qualities, but can’t help wondering how good this could have been (and this is not a bad movie at all) were the filmmakers will to push that little bit further. See this with an open mind and you can’t go wrong – like my own report cards through the school years, Julie Hart’s definite promise still has to be accompanied by the could-do-better side-note, to which I’ll gladly mark the progress.