Here’s a genuine question that will have nothing to do with what follows: what is it with indie films and post-rock, or even stripped down acoustic music? What are these selections supposed to communicate?
Glad we could get that out of the way. Now, it seems that a common thread among more than a few independent features is adults in crisis – hell, that was the basis for Liberal Arts last week. But why is this a popular plotline? Could it be the corresponding themes of youth and compromise that play into the lives of the picture’s very creators? Could it be because the lack of major Hollywood studio expectations and limitations allows filmmakers to examine their protagonists more in depth than otherwise? Maybe, but that certainly is the case with the best examples of indie dramas. Though this is only her debut feature, director/screenwriter Julia Hart uses this subject in Miss Stevens to flaunt some unexpectedly veteran form.
In Miss Stevens, our title character, portrayed by American Horror Story star Lily Rabe, is a lonely, somewhat disaffected high school English teacher chaperoning a group of three students for a high school drama competition. On this trip, thanks to a troubled student (Timothée Chalamet) she finds an awkward connection with, she’s forced to reckon with the repressed emotions holding her back from happiness. Though this may not be the most original premise, it’s the manner in which Hart tells her story that makes the film stand out of the crowd.
Miss Stevens clocks in at a lean 86 minutes, but it commands a deeper density other films of similar length do not possess. Throughout every act, Hart and co-writer Jordan Horowitz’s screenplay is defined, and even dominated by compact, though still plenty poignant moments that make the writing much tighter. When leading to more elongated scenes, the sum of their parts lends an extra gravity that makes their admittedly familiar themes pop – especially while the film rejects certain genre tropes to produce unresolved tension.
But this isn’t one of those narratives that slowly build to a heart-stopping crescendo by the second act’s end, leaving you to recuperate for the rest of the duration. Though that method of storytelling is entertaining and satisfying when done effectively, it can stoop to pretension when ill executed, and Hart and Horowitz’s script resists such temptation. In a sense, it makes these characters and the circumstances surrounding them feel more authentic, something independent filmmakers often strive toward.
And while the screenplay busily wrings out every last drop of realism, Rabe does much the same in the title role. Throughout the film, she skillfully conceals Miss Stevens’ truth at the right moments, then offers brief glimpses of a blossom only to return to that neutral state of confinement frequently drenched in melancholic self-deprecation to a degree, thankfully without dipping into self-pity. Additionally, whenever she keeps Miss Stevens’ emotions in check, Sebastian Wintero’s understated work behind the lens is enough to evoke those feelings without feeling invasive. Special mentions go to Chalamet, as well, for making the most as Miss Stevens’ polar opposite. He’s still young yet, and it’s only a matter of time before he’s given bigger roles.
Something delightfully unexpected from Miss Stevens was its subtle psychological element in the cinematography and its musical cues. The first shot we see is a close-up long take from behind Miss Stevens as soon as a local production has reached its conclusion and the other audience members file out while she remains seated, and then reverses for a similar angle. From minute one, we’re supposed to get inside her head, and the film often uses long takes and not just POV framing to accomplish that. We’re told to do so because she’s in her own head much of the time, signified by bits of the soundtrack that either decrease in volume whenever a character draws her back into reality, or cut off in the middle to make a jarring scene transition.
It’s that extra touch that helps Miss Stevens differentiate itself just enough from other adult coming-of-age dramedies, and yet that slightest difference is enough to make a resounding impact, all the way up to an ambiguously positive conclusion. For every person living their twenties or remembering their twenties: we’ve all felt a little disenchanted and needed to break out of that spell. It may seem simple, but Miss Stevens is sincere ode to the uncertainty.