'Miss Stevens': SXSW Review

Miss Stevens Still - H 2016
Courtesy of SXSW
A forbidden flirtation, skillfully performed.

Lily Rabe, daughter of the late Jill Clayburgh, plays a troubled teacher tempted by a liaison with a gifted student, played by up-and-comer Timothee Chalamet.

There have been many movies about inspirational teachers, along with a few others about those who are not exactly role models. Miss Stevens, an indie feature premiering at South by Southwest, falls into the second category and works some intriguing variations on this slightly queasy theme. The picture doesn’t fully succeed, but it showcases strong performances that might earn it a minor position in the marketplace.

The leading role is played by Lily Rabe, the daughter of the late Jill Clayburgh, and Clayburgh’s presence looms over the movie, not simply in the physical resemblance of the two actresses. The film bears a dedication “for Jill,” and Rabe’s character, Rachel Stevens, is unstable because of her grief over the death of her mother, an actress. Yet one failing of the pic is that it doesn’t provide enough additional information as to why Rachel is so troubled; even in the very first scene, when she presides over a classroom discussion of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, she seems a bit bonkers.

The main thrust of the film is the journey that Rachel takes with three of her students to a statewide contest called the Young Dramatists Competition. While on this weekend getaway, Rachel has a liaison with a married teacher staying at the same hotel, and she also engages in a troubling flirtation with her most gifted student, Billy (Timothee Chalamet), a boy who has decided to go off his behavior-controlling medication at a most inopportune time.

The relationship of Rachel and Billy is the most arresting element in the movie directed by Julia Hart and written by Hart and Jordan Horowitz. The film steers clear of the most sordid potentialities of the subject, but Rabe and Chalamet convey a convincing sense of forbidden attraction. Rabe is a strong presence throughout. A scene in which she throws herself at the adult teacher (Rob Huebel) after their one-night stand is particularly well done; both characters behave badly but believably.

Chalamet’s performance, however, is the heart of the movie. He’s had roles in Showtime's Homeland and the films Interstellar and Men, Women & Children, and he confirms his talents here. He is compelling even when he’s just watching silently and reacting to the other characters. When he has to explode with rage or manic energy, he’s startling. And in the drama competition, his reading of a climactic speech from Death of a Salesman suggests that this young actor has a bright future in many different media. (I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better performance of that speech.)

The other two students on the trip — the bossy Margot (Lili Reinhart) and the insecure Sam (Anthony Quintal) — are not so well drawn in the script, though the actors are appealing. The film’s strength is not in its visual style; the California locations have a generic feel. But the musical selections are apt, and if the conclusion seems too weak and tentative, the characters do stay in our memory.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)
Production companies: Beachside Films, Gilbert Films, Original Headquarters

Cast: Lily Rabe, Timothee Chalamet, Lili Reinhart, Anthony Quintal, Oscar Nunez, Rob Huebel
Director: Julia Hart
Screenwriters: Julia Hart, Jordan Horowitz
Producers: Michael B. Clark, Gary Gilbert, Jordan Horowitz, Alex Turtletaub
Director of photography: Sebastian Winter
Production designers: Cindy Chao, Michele Yu
Costume designer: Elizabeth Warn
Editors: Lee Haugen, Amy McGrath
Music: Rob Simonsen

Not rated, 86 minutes