“Are you waiting for someone?”
Those are the first words spoken in “Miss Stevens,” the modestly scaled but characteristically strong directorial debut from “The Keeping Room” writer Julia Hart, and they bore into the rest of the film like a bad hangover. The usher is just trying to be polite, trying to understand why the crying blonde woman in the back row of his theatre is still in her seat long after the rest of the audience has cleared out and gone home. “Are you waiting for someone?” He has no idea how big of a question that is.
A 29-year-old teacher at a high school somewhere in the deserts of Southern California, Miss Stevens (Lily Rabe) looks like a deer in the headlights and lives like she’s already been flattened. And yet, judging by how aggressively she deflects any and all of the personal questions that her students lob in her direction, it’s clear she’s trying to hide that she’s hurting at all, let alone reveal the make of the car that hit her. Needless to say, her plan isn’t working.
For one thing, she’s awful at hiding her pain. In an early scene that subtly skewers those movies where a class lesson explains the themes, Miss Stevens leans a little bit too hard into a discussion about the end of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” — when she declares that “We’re all locked up in some way,” there isn’t a kid in the room who doesn’t recognize that their teacher is talking about herself.
But no one is ever as good at hiding this stuff as they think, and what really dismantles Miss Stevens’ disguise is that the movie itself betrays her trauma at every turn. From small literary touches (like the blinking service light on the dashboard of her station wagon) to more penetrating cinematic ones (like the way Hart often isolates her heroine in shallow focus, the rest of the frame blotched out behind her), it’s as if the world around Miss Stevens is determined to reveal the things she refuses to admit about herself.
The skill and sensitivity with which Hart teases that pain to the surface is a major reason why “Miss Stevens” is consistently more rewarding than so many of the other small, sweet American indies that mine similar territory. Not that the plot doesn’t appear to set itself up for a certain amount of cringe-inducing tweeness: Miss Stevens sets off on the road towards catharsis when she volunteers to chaperone three of her students on a trip to a weekend drama competition. Each of the kids only seems like a stereotype. There’s Margot (Lili Reinhart), part prom queen and part kiss-ass. There’s Sam (Anthony Quintal), a self-confident drama queen. And then there’s Billy (“One & Two” star Timothée Chalamet, rivetingly channeling a pubescent Casey Affleck), the vaguely troubled delinquent whose intensity makes Miss Stevens uncomfortable, and whose acting talent dwarfs that of the other young thespians in the competition.
Over the course of the weekend, lessons will be learned, monologues will be given, and our heroine will have some really awkward sex with a married guy who looks a lot like Rob Huebel (Rob Huebel).
Miss Stevens will even confess why she’s so sad all the time, baring her soul at just the right moment for it to have maximum emotional impact for all of the characters involved, but the film knows how to walk the fine line between affectingly clever and overly cute. Hart — who co-wrote this delicate screenplay with producer Jordan Horowitz, drawing from her own past as a New York City educator — doesn’t withhold the cause of her heroine’s trauma just so she can sucker punch the audience with it later. On the contrary, she challenges Miss Stevens to see how long she can hide the truth from the people around her, and so we start to look at her the way we always looked at our teachers: With a degree of formality that bordered on the alien and made us forget that we spent more time with them than we did our own parents.
Rabe, a brilliant stage actress who’s finally afforded a proper opportunity to display her talents on screen, leans into the lead role with a measure of personal experience that’s best left for each viewer to solve for themselves. Brittle but unbroken, her performance is attuned to the same imbalanced pitch of the musical saw that warbles across the soundtrack like a warm-blooded theremin. Supported by Hart’s eloquent framing (one medium shot of Miss Stevens sitting on a toilet seat is a masterclass in visual economy), Rabe beautifully sustains that feeling of waiting someone but not knowing what they look like.
Because of course she’s waiting for someone — we all are. And that’s what makes “Miss Stevens” such a reassuring delight. Told with the ramshackle energy of a first feature (but with a depth that hints at many more to come), Hart’s debut blossoms into a lovingly realized story of grief, getting by, and finding help in unexpected places, a movie that knows we could all help each other so much easier if we weren’t always made to feel like we can’t — so much easier if we could be half as emotionally honest with our own feelings as these kids can be with the ones they channel in the monologues they deliver on stage.
“Miss Stevens” may be too gentle and self-contained to leave an impression that’s as deep and true as many of its insights, and the script cheats towards a narrative tidiness that has a way of undercutting the graceful honesty with which these characters bound over their respective blockages, but it’s better to hit these beats too hard than not at all. This is a film that’s at its best when it speaks its mind and lays its cards on the table, and Billy — pulling the final ace from his sleeve — is inevitably the one who finds the perfect words to describe what’s hidden inside this promising jewel box of a movie: “Just ’cause people are the people you’re supposed to talk to doesn’t mean you can talk to them.” The opposite is true, too.
“Miss Stevens” will open in NYC and LA on Friday, 9/16. It will follow on VOD platforms on Tuesday, 9/20.