I frequently look through Netflix for independent films that catch my attention. Very often my interest doesn’t last past the first 10-20 minutes of the films I start. Sometimes I find one that is quite good. And then there are those rare finds when I come across a film that takes my breath away. Miss Stevens is such a film.
Very simple in plot, and in number of characters, Miss Stevens was huge on excellent writing, tight acting, and superb direction. Julia Hart, who both wrote and directed the film, brought depth and realism to her troubled characters in a way that didn’t resort to morose and cloying melancholy. Instead, these characters, though seemingly stuck in their situations, are full of life and fight, behind their troubled words and circumstances. They are trying to find a way forward, working to figure things out. When they (Miss Stevens and Billy) are thrown together in their troubles a beautiful array of fascinating fireworks results.
The story revolves around a school excursion of three high schoolers, including Billy, to a drama competition. Miss Stevens volunteers to take the kids at the last minute. We learn that Billy is a troubled child in some way and that Miss Stevens will need to pay special attention to him. As it turns out it is Billy who begins paying special attention to Miss Stevens, creating difficult situations for them both.
Lily Rabe is brilliant as Miss Stevens. Her portrayal of the character’s inner angst, curbed by a need to press forward and be there for her students, is mesmerizing. This came to its height in a beautiful scene as they stand outside the door where they are waiting for the judges’ deliberations on the competition. There is magic on the screen as we watch her trying to process what is happening, knowing what the right thing to do is, but being genuinely confused and conflicted about her own desires to help in the right way, and at the same time be helped. It was an incredible scene, one of the best I have seen this year. This is in no small part due to the performance of Timothee Chalamet as Billy. He has the command of his character of a seasoned professional and obviously has a promising future ahead of him. He captured our hearts as much as he did Miss Stevens’s and drew us right into the story and held us there. His charm and charisma were aptly juxtaposed against a backdrop of depression in a way that works well for the film and the connection between the two leads. You can feel the power of the forbidden chemistry between them and the struggles it creates for each of them. It is just plain fun to watch them make it all happen.
The film is well paced and edited, about an hour and a half in length. It keeps the audience engaged throughout. The dialogue is beautifully natural which can be hard to find in an independent drama. The supporting characters, played by Lili Reinhart and Anthony Quintal, are fun and well played. They added color around the central plot of the story. It’s a very tight film all around and I highly recommend it.
I was thrilled to have come across two wonderful films in the last few weeks that were written and directed by talented female writer / directors. The other was Liz Tuccillo with Take Care. I hope these films will push their creators’ careers forward. And I hope we’ll continue to see more content coming from their capable and creative vision.