Student and teacher play with fire in awkward drama Miller's Girl
Stories that dare to depict relationships between someone who is underage and an adult who should know better are some of the trickiest to pull off well. If not treated with enough care, a film could come off as a tacit endorsement of such a bond, an idea with which some filmmakers may be okay, but most surely want to avoid.
The new film Miller’s Girl walks that tightrope in a way that may not be as successful as writer/director Jade Halley Bartlett had intended. Cairo Sweet (Jenna Ortega) is a high schooler who – as she explains in the first of many voiceovers - lives alone in a big house in Tennessee, with her parents “permanently abroad.” This leaves her to her own devices, including harboring a crush on her English teacher, Jonathan Miller (Martin Freeman).
With more than a little encouragement by her flirty best friend, Winnie (Gideon Adlon) – who has a crush of her own on teacher/coach Boris Fillmore (Bashir Salahuddin) – Cairo begins pursuing Mr. Miller by engaging with him about their shared love of writing, especially the work of the notoriously prurient Henry Miller. With Mr. Miller a little too welcoming of her attention, it’s clear it won’t be long until the whole situation comes to a head.
Given that the film is made by a female filmmaker, you’d figure that the point of view would be one that bends toward showing how wrong it is for a teacher to indulge in a student’s crush, no matter how much she pursues him. And while Bartlett certainly doesn’t ignore that aspect of the story, the way she structures the film gives both Cairo and Mr. Miller – as well as Winnie and Mr. Fillmore – plenty of latitude in allowing the pursuit.
The film is odd in a number of other ways, as well. Miller and his wife, Bea (Dagmara Domincyzk), share a series of weird scenes in which she is in an almost constant state of undress for no compelling reason. The majority of the film takes place at the high school, but most of the sequences feature only the two girls and the two teachers in various combinations, as if no one else were there.
Most curious of all is how the moments when Cairo and Mr. Miller get the closest are treated. They have a romantic, seductive vibe to them, with the cinematography, music, voiceovers, and a silky dress Cairo wears all combining to make it seem like Bartlett wants the audience to be okay with the two of them getting together. An unsatisfying ending only confuses matters more.
For all the story issues the film has, none of it is the fault of the actors, who give uniformly good performances, even with the thick Southern accents several of them employ. Ortega is a rising star thanks to her roles in the Scream series and Netflix show Wednesday, and she’s highly effective in this role. Freeman isn’t your typical heartthrob, but he plays the conflicted teacher part well. Adlon, Salahuddin, and Domincyzk are believable in their roles, even if their arcs are a little strange.
Perhaps other critics will have a greater insight into what Bartlett was trying to accomplish with Miller’s Girl, but this critic was left highly uncomfortable with how the story was presented. While teacher-student relationships have happened in the real world, depicting them in a film requires a nuance that seems to be missing here.
Miller's Girl opens in select theaters on January 26.