A smartly layered performance by Lily Rabe distinguishes Julia Hart's involving if somewhat pat dramedy.
A high-school English teacher chaperones three students at a weekend-long drama competition and finds that she’s the one with a lot to learn in “Miss Stevens,” a well-acted and involving dramedy that takes a few too many facile turns en route to upbeat endings all around. Julia Hart’s directing debut is distinguished by a smartly layered performance from Lily Rabe (“American Horror Story”), fully persuasive as a designated authority figure still a few steps away from embracing full adulthood, but it’s hard not to wish the script weren’t quite so insistent on treating its characters — even those it invests with deeper, richer complexities — as problems waiting to be solved by film’s end. Still, with its polished presentation and strong performances, this late-coming-of-ager should serve as a solid calling card for Hart as it makes its way into the niche-distribution stream.
A brief opening scene of thirtysomething Rachel Stevens (Rabe), quietly transfixed after watching a stage play, initially suggests we may be in for the trusty old rewind-and-build-up-to-the-big-climax trick. Fortunately, the screenplay (written by Hart and producer Jordan Horowitz) has a less obvious strategy in mind. Before long we’re on a stretch of dusty California road with Rachel and her three young charges: the bossy, tightly wound Margot (Lili Reinhart); the affable, openly gay Sam (Anthony Quintal); and the gifted but disturbed Billy (Timothee Chalamet), who’s been allowed to come along on the condition that he’s finished all his assignments (he hasn’t) and that he stays on his medication (he doesn’t). Their destination is a statewide acting tournament where they hope one of them might win a prize and help save their school’s dwindling arts programs.
It’s not particularly promising that the three students are initially written and played as such familiar cookie-cutter types, and their combative interplay in the early going prepares you for an entire movie’s worth of noisy bickering (not helped by a few overly emphatic musical and editorial choices). But once they arrive at the hotel that will be their home and workshop for the next few days, the relationships mellow and deepen. One of the most appealing aspects of the film is the way Hart (who previously scripted the 2014 Civil War drama “The Keeping Room”) and Horowitz respect their young characters’ intelligence and idealism. Whatever their personal hang-ups, the three teens relate to one another in a supportive rather than competitive spirit, and their motivation seems to stem from a genuine love of the arts rather than any desire to pad their college resumes. It’s Miss Stevens, by contrast, who has some growing up to do — as evidenced by everything from her minor mistakes, like neglecting her car’s engine light, to her more serious lapses in judgment, like falling into bed with a married teacher (Rob Huebel).
Still, the script is subtle enough to suggest that Rachel has her issues and immaturities without making her out to be a clueless idiot or an over-the-top degenerate figure. On the contrary, as embodied with sly wit and easygoing good humor by Rabe, she comes across as a perceptive, sympathetic individual who often knows exactly what to say in moments of crisis. And while her bond with the troubled, inquisitive Billy becomes the script’s emotional core, coaxing forth insights and revelations that neither character is fully prepared to deal with, the story mercifully avoids the predictable route of nudging them into an inappropriate relationship, instead raising honest, hard-to-answer questions about what happens when the mentor unexpectedly becomes the mentee.
That understanding of the counseling/confessional aspect of the student-teacher relationship no doubt stems from the eight years Hart spent as a school instructor (five of them teaching high-school English). Her desire to survey all her characters without judgment could not be clearer or more laudable, and the actors repay her empathy with roundly winning performances — particularly Chalamet as a student whose jaundiced view of the world has given him a desire for deeper, more truthful connections. (It also may have made him a damn good stage actor, as ably confirmed by some choice moments from “Death of a Salesman.”) The pursuit of authenticity extends to the dead-on drabness of Sebastian Winter’s lensing and Michele Yu and Cindy Chao’s production design, which perfectly capture the bland, functional anonymity of the classrooms and hotel rooms in which much of the drama unfolds.
The whole package has been assembled with sufficient professionalism and sensitivity that it may seem quibbling to fault the feel-good tidiness of the resolution, particularly with regard to a romantic subplot involving Sam that seems to have been shoehorned in to give the likable Quintal more screen time. But while you begrudge none of the characters their hard-won moments of satisfaction, there’s a whiff of therapy-by-numbers here that can’t help but diminish rather than enrich what came before. A tougher, wiser film might still have extended the characters a measure of compassion, but it might also have left the audience with a deeper curiosity about where life’s challenges could take them next.