We’re used to seeing her possessed by demons as a maniacal nun, conjuring magic as a swamp-dwelling witch, or channeling the murderous lunacy of serial killer Aileen Wuornos on American Horror Story, but Lily Rabe offers a surprisingly soft, subtle turn as she leads the cast with a career-best performance in writer-director Julia Hart’s Miss Stevens, a breezy indie gem plucked from the rough at SXSW earlier this year.
Miss Stevens follows the titular character, a high school English teacher played with palpable zest by Rabe, who, along with three of her students, embarks on a road trip to a statewide drama competition in southern California. She forms an unexpected bond with her teenaged companions, though she’s inherently drawn to the charms of Billy (Timothee Chalamet), a depressive loner wise beyond his years, with behavioral issues and what can only be described as divinely-gifted talent as a budding thespian.
As she approaches 30, Stevens grapples with a long-gestating pang of loneliness while bridging the gap between a decade of dreaming and the life she settled for. Still, whether she’s seated, by herself, in the comfortable darkness of a movie theater or welcoming dramatic interludes to punctuate her stagnant existence (she consciously has an affair with a married man within the film’s first quarter, for example), Stevens finds a way to fill her life with the art of performance; after all, perched in front of a classroom, reciting lines from The Great Gatsby to a full house is a production in itself, just not on the stage she’d initially desired as a twentysomething fantasist.
With existential anxieties and past demons rising to the surface as she prepares her students for the competition, Stevens finds herself distracted (and mesmerized) by Billy’s affections for her. His commitment to understanding her plight tempts Stevens with a pulsing energy, one that beckons her to tango with a feeling of forbidden attraction. Though the pair bonds, much to Stevens’ resistance, Hart wisely contains their relationship to a level of emotional intimacy. Forcing Stevens into taboo territory by, say, indulging what at times feels like sexual chemistry between the two would have been an easy out, but Hart’s more confident in her material than that. She understands that drama is a tantalizing beast that works best when it isn’t obvious, and her characters are stronger as a result.
Though its heart beats with the same blood as something like Lost in Translation, in which a daunting age gap inspires lasting platonic chemistry between two drifting souls, Miss Stevens feels fresh in its take on human vulnerability. It acknowledges that the best versions of ourselves are often written—sometimes by the hand of other people—when we’re not looking, when a third-act plot twist jerks the wheel left. The test, however, is whether we embrace it or not. Sometimes the teacher needs a lesson, too. B