Lily Rabe’s discomfiting performance anchors the fascinatingly uneasy comedy-drama Miss Stevens. Julia Hart’s film — about a young, slightly hapless English teacher who must chaperone three students to a state drama competition — has a premise that could easily invite cliché. You half expect it to become either an inspirational tale of a grown-up changing troubled young lives, or an irreverent tale of an unqualified deadbeat screwing things up. Instead, Hart portrays the unquantifiable nature of disappointment, success and adulthood. It’s a tight, unnerving and deceptively complex movie about broken people just managing to get by, and at the center of it all is Rabe’s transfixing presence.
When we first see Miss Stevens (Rabe), she’s in a theater watching a performance; after it’s over and everyone else has left, she remains in the audience, still looking up at the stage — as if expecting something or someone, or maybe wondering if that’s all there is. It’s a dreamlike prologue that quickly establishes an otherworldly mood. Well-meaning but not exactly the most successful of instructors, the 29-year-old is a lonely, frustrated soul — the kind who might interrupt a class discussion for a lengthy, awkward digression on the prison-like nature of school, only to be brought back to earth by her students. She agrees to accompany the drama students only after no other teacher would take the gig. The teens are an assorted bunch: precocious organizer Margot (Lili Reinhart); openly gay, lovesick Sam (Anthony Quintal); and behaviorally challenged rebel Billy (Timothée Chalamet).
Hart examines the intriguing interdependence that develops between these kids and their teacher. The high-strung Miss Stevens’ veneer of authority dissolves at the first sign of trouble, and the kids, though inexperienced, often find themselves having to take care of things on their own, despite not quite getting along. For all that, Billy, who has gone off his meds, starts to find himself drawn to his teacher. There’s chemistry between the two, but it’s not quite sexual — rather, he recognizes in her a fellow troubled soul, and she seems both flattered and disturbed by his attentions. Meanwhile, Miss Stevens flirts with, beds, then embarrasses herself in front of Walter (Rob Huebel), a chaperone from another school who comes on to her but also makes it clear that he’s married.
Hart’s film is quite funny in its strange way, with a tense, deadpan quality. You want to laugh, but often you’re afraid to, because there’s a gathering sense that something awful could happen at any moment. The settings are simple and spare, the characters’ movements limited, the score hesitant and atonal. But look closer beneath this pointed chilliness and you can see a world of emotional turmoil. Rabe’s facial expressions and delivery are a constant source of wonder, anxiety and pathos, while Chalamet keeps switching between clueless teen and brooding young man of mystery.
She’s almost 29, but Miss Stevens hasn’t yet developed the filter and good sense to be able comfort kids with a line of soothing bullshit. She wants to do and say the right thing, but often doesn’t know how, and has to feel around for some kind of deeper truth. When one student’s performance goes horribly off the rails, the chaperone undiplomatically admits that the experience was “humiliating,” then somehow finds her way to more comforting language. I cringed a lot while watching this woman, but it was a cringe of familiarity: At some point, we’ve all either been this person or have feared becoming her. She might be an oddball, but, paradoxically, she’s a universal one.