THE STORY – A creative writing assignment yields complex results between a teacher and his talented student.
THE CAST – Martin Freeman, Jenna Ortega, Dagmara Domińczyk, Bashir Salahuddin & Gideon Adlon
THE TEAM – Jade Halley Bartlett (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 93 Minutes
As much as we like to exalt the noble profession of teaching in real life, school teachers in movies have traditionally had a pretty rough go of it. From Maggie Smith in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” to Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society,” teachers regularly bear the brunt of students who are unruly, disrespectful, untrustworthy, and even deadly, often causing them to lose their livelihoods in the process. Just this year, we’ve been flooded by stories of similarly beleaguered teachers around the world, from Japan’s “Monster” and Turkey’s “About Dry Grasses” to the Oscar-nominated “The Teachers’ Lounge” from Germany. And now, with Jade Halley Bartlett’s “Miller’s Girl,” it’s Tennessee’s turn.
In a small rural high school, creative writing teacher Jonathan Miller (Martin Freeman) is bored out of his mind. His marriage to wife Beatrice (Dagmara Domińczyk) has gone cold, and though he’s a published author, he hasn’t written a single piece in years and questions what he’s even doing with his life. Dreading the prospect of facing another class of dullard students, he is pleasantly surprised with the arrival of 18-year-old Cairo Sweet (Jenna Ortega), who has an appetite for reading and a talent for writing. At last, Jonathan has discovered someone who might genuinely appreciate his teaching.
While her parents are on yet another globetrotting adventure, Cairo lives alone in an antebellum mansion, with her only company being her best friend Winnie Black (Gideon Adlon). Much more so than Cairo, Winnie seeks physical satisfaction and begins a serious flirtation with the school’s married coach, Boris (Bashir Salahuddin), who happens to be Miller’s best buddy. Winnie’s suggestion that Cairo may be harboring some of those same feelings about her new creative writing teacher soon stirs something within her. Sensing a budding talent in Cairo, Jonathan begins to give her extra attention, a boundary-pushing step that does not go unnoticed. In turn, Cairo takes up smoking just so that she can share a cigarette with him before school and lingers with him long after class is over. As Cairo’s relationship grows into a private tutoring of sorts, Jonathan assigns her to write a short story in the style of her favorite author. She selects the provocative writer Henry James and writes an explicit tale of a teacher who sets out to seduce a student. Fully aware of its potential ramifications, Miller tells her to destroy the story, but seeing his demand as a personal rejection of her, Cairo declines, saving it for another purpose entirely.
Bartlett’s script for “Miller’s Girl” is well-known in Hollywood as a member of the distinguished Class of 2016 of the Hollywood Blacklist, the annual collection of the most-liked screenplays in town that have yet to be produced. Though it took eight years to come to the screen, the film marks Bartlett’s debut both as a feature writer and as a director. It’s easy to see why her screenplay might have seemed dazzling on the page to readers for the Black List, as Bartlett has crafted some well-timed zingers that would impress any reader of Bartlett’s talent in writing dialogue. And that’s the problem with “Miller’s Girl” — so many of the attention-getting one-liners manage to serve the screenwriter but not the characters. What reads well on the page doesn’t always work the same way when putting those words into these characters’ mouths. Would a small-town girl such as Winnie really say a line like, “Can you keep a secret?” “I’m keeping Victoria’s in my pants. Does that count?” (Our hearts go out to actress Adlon for having to navigate that one). These are Waffle House characters forced to speak as if they were at the Algonquin Round Table, and the relentless quips keep us from believing them as real people and empathizing with their plight.
Bartlett’s background is as a playwright, and indeed, “Miller’s Girl” was initially written for the stage; this is not surprising, given the small number of characters and the theatricality of the dialogue. Happily, however, Bartlett is fortunate with the quality of her cast, particularly the two leads. By placing Cairo in a creepy mansion, Ortega stirs up some unintended “Wednesday” vibes. Yet, she still manages to capture the longings of a literate student tempted by the pleasures of an illicit relationship. Similarly, Freeman, despite some fuzziness in his character, effectively underplays Jonathan’s deep emotional need for some kind of a fervid spark in his life. As his wife, however, Domińczyk is perhaps least served by the material, with the character of Beatrice written as a “Virginia Woolf”-type harridan, swigging an ever-present cocktail while questioning her husband’s virility.
Somewhere inside “Miller’s Girl,” there’s a worthy story of the emotional complexities of a student/teacher relationship, and indeed, there are moments here where Bartlett smartly captures the depth of such a bond. But, unfortunately, she has sold her characters short by relegating the rest to become a simple revenge tale.