Say what you will about writer/director Jade Halley Bartlett’s debut feature, Miller’s Girl, and we’ll get to that in a moment, this movie truly understands the cinematic power of cigarettes. Smoking looks cool and dammit, people look hot smoking—even if I don’t want to be around them afterward. Something as seemingly innocuous as offering a light becomes encoded with erotic subtext, they’re an excuse for characters to isolate themselves and break apart from the prying eyes of the crowd and exchange secrets, or hell, they offer an excuse for the camera to linger on a character’s mouth.
There’s a great deal of promise and potential in Miller’s Girl; Bartlett’s script was a Blacklist find a few years back. It walks between being Southern Gothic Lolita and a throwback to ‘90s teenage-girls-are-psycho-stalker movies, like The Crush and Poison Ivy, where young women seduce, terrorize, and ultimately destroy older male figures in their lives. The kind of movies that tease viewers by leering at young women, only to then scold them for being powerless slaves to libido. Ultimately, however, for every moment that hits the mark, there’s one that doesn’t quite get there, and the finished product lacks the necessary teeth to truly dig in and eviscerate. We get it, horny old dudes perving on teenagers is creepy, not a news flash, but beyond that, there’s not much meat or substance.
Jenna Ortega plays the hilariously named Cairo Sweet, a young Tennessee woman with conveniently absentee parents. She’s brilliant and driven and, despite big dreams, has never left her hometown. The blandly monikered Jonathan Miller (Martin Freeman) is a creative writing teacher, nee a failed writer. When Cairo enrolls in Miller’s class, what begins as a teacher mentoring a bright young mind quickly morphs into infatuation, borderline inappropriate flirtations, and erotically charged interactions. Come on, Miller has a combative wife, Beatrice (Dagmara Dominczyk), at home and Cairo not only reads books, she’s read his book! That’s a movie recipe for obsession if there ever was one.
Bartlett intentionally cranks every element up to eleven. (Again, see the name Cairo Sweet.) Miller and his wife can’t have a single interaction without her needling him. Cairo literally walks out of a mist-covered, kudzu-choked forest in slow motion multiple times. The place, the town, Cairo’s ancient manor, it’s all steeped in ghosts and legends and myths. Each line is loaded to the point of being overburdened—don’t we all know teens who talk like very real teens and say things like, “I guess you’re just another run of the mill generationally wealthy gal living in a haunted ancestral mansion.” And, of course, characters frequently quote long passages from great works of literature, from memory. Often it drives the melodrama and squeezes every last bit of eroticism out of the scenario, and at other times it tips in self-parody.
For their part, Freeman and Ortega are both fantastic. Nothing else would work if they didn’t, and the duo has an at-times electric chemistry. Ortega personifies that moment between, where, at 18, she’s technically an adult, but though full of those feelings and desires and yearnings, has no more experience than a child and doesn’t entirely know how to express herself—she wants to be a writer and laments she has no real experience to write about. She does have a few voiceovers where she affects an ill-advised southern accent, but aside from those bits, it thankfully softens and fades. Freeman offers a strong turn as an everyman who has gradually, and unintentionally, abandoned his own dreams and finds himself stuck in a years-long rut he can’t escape. He begins as an educator nurturing a student with more potential than he’s ever encountered, only to creep closer and closer to a line he can’t cross.
The stealth MVPs of Miller’s Girl, however, are the side characters. Beatrice could easily be a shrill caricature of a quibbling, nitpicking shrew, but Dominczyk plays her with an edge that, while cutting, demonstrates that this is someplace she ended up because of Miller. It’s clear she has tried and tried and tried, but he had no interest in saving himself, let alone being saved, and her only option to save herself is to lash out. Miller’s best friend and fellow teacher, Boris (Bashir Salahuddin), and Cairo’s BFF, Winnie (Gideon Adlon), mirror the main duo. They flirt and joke (every male teacher is a complete horn-dog) and from the outside, they appear the most problematic. Though definitely inappropriate for a student teacher relationship, they realistically stop far short of the point-of-no-return. They play at the thing while Cairo and Miller actually do it. Adlon and Salahuddin are also where the movie finds moments of levity and laughter. (Produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, there’s a dark, unusual sense of humor.)
Despite being built on a strong foundation, the biggest issue with Miller’s Girl is that it’s too tame, too restrained. It never goes far enough, and the stakes never feel suitably grand. From both sides, Cairo and Miller, it’s more a minor infatuation where it needs to be obsession; it’s a crush when it should be all consuming passion. The script touches on themes and ideas, but never fully commits. There’s a bit of will-they-won’t-they tension, but it never carries much weight. At the end, Cairo’s somewhat disillusioned with the world, but has learned valuable lessons and finally collected some real experiences. She’ll be fine. And sure, Miller is a creep and now he knows it, but the only real consequences are that he loses a job he hated and a marriage that should have ended years ago. He’ll also be fine. The whole thing walks up to the precipice, but never jumps. (Seriously, they kiss one time, that’s it. Bad? Yes. More realistic? Probably. But not that interesting as a movie.) It ultimately leaves you wondering, what’s the fucking point?
That said, there’s something about Miller’s Girl that has stuck with me, and I keep going back and thinking about it. The craft, cinematographer Daniel Brothers shot a hell of a picture, the performances, the mood and the tone; like I said earlier, there’s a great deal of promise and potential. Much of this remains unrealized, but it’s there, and while it doesn’t entirely work or cohere, there’s interesting stuff to explore, especially for a debut feature, and we have a lot to look forward to from Jade Halley Bartlett. [Grade: B-]