If you’re a young high school teacher, should you lower formal barriers and allow a favorite student to address you by your first name? That’s one of the temptations facing the title character of Julia Hart’s modest, warmhearted directorial debut, “Miss Stevens.”
The film, which stars Lily Rabe (“American Horror Story”) as Rachel Stevens, a 29-year-old English teacher who chaperones three of her students during a trip to an acting competition somewhere in California, comes down gently on the side of carefully loosening traditional boundaries. At the same time, it shows how hard it can be for a teacher to resist befriending bright, attractive adolescents burning with curiosity and a desire for personal contact. Rachel may be the supervising adult, but her charges are computer-savvy, can talk the talk of grown-ups and are far from naive.
While acknowledging the erotic undertow of student-teacher relationships, the movie doesn’t descend to prurience. In the eyes of a contemporary high-school student, it suggests, a caring teacher is less a mysterious authority figure than a surrogate older sibling. Rabe’s beautifully balanced performance reminds you that people never really grow up.
Rachel is still grieving over the recent death of her mother, an actress. And when her composure suddenly cracks, she needs comfort. If the nearest person who offers a shoulder to cry on is a student, she accepts it with full awareness of the pitfalls.
The screenplay by Hart and Jordan Horowitz suggests that the biggest difference between adolescence and adulthood is in the degree of impulse control. The students heedlessly throw themselves into new experiences, whereas Rachel thinks before she acts, if not always wisely. Instead of the backbiting and one-upmanship in so many high-school movies, the students here are offer mutual support.
Margot (Lili Reinhart), who resembles the very young Cybill Shepherd, is curt and officious on the outside and deeply self-doubting underneath. The chatty and openly gay Sam (Anthony Quintal) is eager to explore internet hookups when away from home. The conveniently pat resolution of his frustrations is the movie’s one false note.
The combustible and manically energetic Billy (Timothée Chalamet), the most talented of the three young actors, is an out-of-control rebel, desperate for a secure emotional connection.
Something of a teenager herself, Rachel is a bit reckless. For all her frailty, she is immensely likable and devoted. Her willingness to test boundaries is portrayed as a strength: a sign of her passionate dedication to her profession, which for her is not just a job but a calling.
Cast: Lily Rabe, Lili Reinhart, Anthony Quintal, Timothée Chalamet
Director: Julia Hart
Length: 97 minutes
Chapel Hill: Chelsea.