When Miss Stevens is at its best, it has few words and even fewer people. It has scenes like the film’s first, of Miss Stevens (Lily Rabe) staying behind after a play, the last one left, until a custodian asks if she is waiting for someone. Her single word answer conveys a terrible loneliness. Or another one, midway in the film, of Stevens pacing her hotel room practicing the lecture she will give in class on Pride and Prejudice. The words she says are unimportant; it’s the energy she invests in the exercise that matters. These are two momentary scenes show the fundamental truth of socialization: We are different people alone than we are surrounded by others
It’s a good thing that Lily Rabe brings a grounded, mature presence to the film’s title role, because beyond her, Miss Stevens doesn’t have much going for it. The plot is a tired creation. Miss Stevens is going on thirty and a high school English teacher who gets recruited by three students to chaperone them to a drama competition for the weekend. They squeeze into her car, debate old music and share some terrible dialogue along the way. As the preppy, uptight girl, Margot (Lili Reinhart) says: “Don’t you think it’s interesting we spend almost every day together, but we don’t even really know each other?” No, that doesn’t actually sound that interesting to me.
In her directing debut, Julia Hart has created a film that doesn’t look interesting either. The images are mostly warm and fuzzy, often in shallow focus, undercutting group scenes without suggesting depression in solitary ones. One shot, a very slow zoom of Miss Stevens’ car after blowing a tire, is almost painful. Hart’s screenplay isn’t much better, chock full of characters as flat as that tire. See, for example, the waiter straining way too hard to flirt with Miss Stevens. One of Stevens’ students, a gay Hispanic kid (Oscar Nuñez), has a half-hearted romantic arc. What is supposed to be one of the film’s “reveals,” that Stevens is mourning the recent death of her mother, lands without impact because the mother feels less like a ghost than a person who never existed at all.
Hart has a bit more success with Miss Stevens’ two major relationships. The secondary one is the one-night stand she has with another teacher at the competition, Walter (Rob Huebal). Although Huebal still doesn’t quite manage to turn Walter into a person, he succeeds in creating a cool, smooth persona. One can easily see how a married man who smokes in his bathrobe might play to the yearnings of the struggling Stevens. In one of the best scenes in the film, the last meeting between the two, their different teaching philosophies become apparent. Walter is detached and disinterested in the personal lives of his pupils; Stevens can’t help but be drawn in.
The main relationship Stevens builds is with the most troubled of her students, Billy (Timothée Chalamet). A talented actor, Billy is nevertheless as alone as Miss Stevens. He has some minor behavioral problems (like refusing to take a test on The Great Gatsby) and a distant relationship with his parents. The quality of their bond varies by the scene (an excellent long-take of them walking to a diner, an artificial scene of them jumping on a bed) and bends toward the predictable, but it nevertheless resonates. Stevens’ consoling statement to Billy (“Most people suck. Some of them are wonderful, but most of them are not.”) is just the right tone of a sympathetic friendship formed against the world.
Hopefully, this film will just be a slight setback in Hart’s development. Her 2014 script for the period piece drama, The Keeping Room, put her on the independent film world’s radar. And there are a few moments that suggest bigger things to come. Soliciting Rabe’s strong turn, which sometimes reminded me of Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums, has to count for something. The isolation of a female protagonist and the hotel setting also evokes Lost In Translation, a film Rabe cited as a heavy influence in an interview with IndieWire earlier this year.
It’s not a good sign, however, that Miss Stevens struggles again and again to convey a world that feels authentic. One of the film’s opening set pieces, a lecture Stevens gives her students about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, ends in the students basically interrogating her in a way I’ve never seen (or heard of) in a high school classroom. The drama competition, which should be grand and exciting, has no charm or specificity; it turns into a handful of monologues. What too much of Miss Stevens amounts to is that empty theater at the beginning of the film. Instead of it sparking our imagination, we are left hesitant and alone, waiting for something that will never come.
Miss Stevens is playing in New York and Los Angeles and is also available through VOD platforms.