Movies about teachers and students have a long history of clammy earnestness — the unsung educator-hero and the troubled kid in a waltz of steady, platonic uplift. Much harder to pull off is what the fizzy, melancholic charmer “Miss Stevens” does with its tale of a young high school English teacher (a superb Lily Rabe) chaperoning three students of varying personalities and problems on a weekend trip, and that’s acknowledge that the boundary between instructor and charge is a necessary but complicated one. Especially when messy, needy, well-meaning human beings are on both sides of that line.
First-time feature director Julia Hart, working from a screenplay she co-wrote with Jordan Horowitz, and drawing from her own experiences teaching high school students, has created a small gem about the kind of emotional investment going on (one hopes) every day in the educational system, as well as its toll. Though small-scale almost to a fault — at times it feels more like a loosely stitched collection of scenes than a fully threaded movie — “Miss Stevens” bears a maturity and genuineness that thankfully feels miles apart from the inspirational assembly line of Hollywood product.
Kind-eyed and tightly wound, Rachel Stevens seems almost glad to be out of her classroom Friday afternoon and driving a trio of promising kids to a statewide drama competition held at a hotel. (Discussing Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” with her students, she likens school to “an institution,” and clearly means it.) That day she’s warned by the principal (Oscar Nuñez, “The Office”) that one of her charges, Billy (Timothée Chalamet, “Interstellar”), suffers from a behavioral disorder that requires medication.
But on the California highway, Billy is the easygoing one, singing along with Rachel to oldies. Smart, organized Margot (Lili Reinhart, “The Kings of Summer”) cares about school funding, but also field trip protocol; she projects a high-strung vibe that’s arguably more teacher-like than Rachel’s distracted demeanor, which suggests that authoritativeness is something she has to remember. The third kid is Sam (Anthony Quintal): gay, personable, and eager to practice his Christopher Durang monologue.
At the hotel, a certain looseness takes over. Rachel clearly enjoys the chance to drink a little, tell a personal story to the kids over dinner, then, later at a mixer, turn the attentions of a married fellow teacher (Rob Huebel) into a one-night stand. (When she laughs uncontrollably on the bed afterward, to his consternation, you just know she’s thinking about what a cliché the situation is.)
But there’s an undeniable something in the molecules between Billy’s calm mooniness around Rachel, and her fascination with his troubled-yet-gifted vibe. A morning spent with him in tow, dealing with a flat tire and getting a meal, leads to a conversation about mutual loneliness, with Rachel eventually muttering, “How are we talking about this?”
The movie’s emotional fulcrum is a late-night hotel room visit between a distraught Rachel and a comforting Billy that Hart pitches at a rightly uncomfortable tone, but one that’s also truly touching. It’s safe to say, though, that this queasy yet non-tabloidy arena wouldn’t be nearly so dramatically effective if it weren’t for the nuanced intelligence of Rabe’s portrayal. It’s as if she’d channeled the neurotic spark of her mother, the late Jill Clayburgh, filtered it through her own searching empathy, and delivered someone addled by the way her job requires an exasperatingly alchemic mix of feeling and discipline.
Watching Rabe (who received Best Actress at SXSW for her work here) assess every moment for its possibly treacherous/rewarding emotional pathways makes for an unexpectedly thrilling characterization. And when Rachel, in a confessional moment, mourns an actor mom who could perform rings around her fellow actors at her local theater, it’s as poignant as it sounds.
She’s aided wonderfully by Chalamet, whose Billy is a quietly powerful package of watchfulness and elusive teenage gloom, that sweet-faced, sensitivity-tracking missile you know will make for an attentive yet problematic boyfriend for some unprepared girl. Chalamet also delivers the Biff monologue from “Death of a Salesman” like a boss, and just as you’d imagine Billy would.
Rounding out the key cast, Reinhart and Quintal provide enough humor and sincerity to avoid what could have been stereotypes, and Huebel segues nicely from weekend adulterer to daytime cynic, telling a flustered Rachel in a moment of shoptalk that he’s lasted as long as he has in education by following a simple, protective philosophy: care about the outside — kids’ grades, their future success — but avoid the inside.
As treacherous as the territory is that “Miss Stevens” surveys, however, the film doesn’t endorse his advice. Hart’s movie is, for all its prickly corners and Edward Hopper-ish hotel interiors from cinematographer Sebastian Winterø (“Cheap Thrills”), a stealthily inspirational endeavor about a difficult, maligned profession. But it earns that feel-goodie bag at the end by understanding that learning curves happen to teachers, too.