Culture that’s honest about student-teacher relationships is rare. Perhaps that’s why, as a former professor, I love Julia Hart’s Miss Stevens, a simple low-budget drama about a teacher escorting three students to an off-campus drama competition. Hart was a high school teacher before she wrote and directed her 2016 film, which is saturated in knowledge about how schools work, and beautifully sensitive to the intensity, weirdness, and deep affection of relationships forged inside them.
An English teacher in her late twenties, Rachel Stevens (Lily Rabe) is suspended in grief, having recently lost her mother, her only family. She drives her mom’s old car, listens to her music, and haunts her former amateur theater. The film opens with Rabe sitting in the audience as the theater empties around her, and we soon see she has nowhere much to go, except a messy apartment, a bottle of vodka, grading and lesson plans. The kids she teaches are a blur, until three of them blossom, briefly, into three dimensions.
I found this movie last year thanks to my (hardly unique) post-Call Me By Your Name fascination with Timothée Chalamet, who was barely out of drama school himself when he took the role of Billy, the most talented of the three students in the drama competition. His performance is deliberately lightly forced, intense, and unstable, because Billy is struggling so hard to find the line between acting and being. But the film isn’t interested in giving this boy what he thinks he wants from his young, pretty, vulnerable teacher. When he calls Miss Stevens by her first name, the other students react in embarrassed shock, and when she finds herself crying on his shoulder, she allows herself just a few seconds of human comfort before pushing him physically away.
The other two students—the straight-A girl who follows rules out of terror, and the out gay boy whom the other three admire for how he’s so “easy to be around”—are sweet, supportive, and caught up in their own dramas. They push their teacher’s buttons and boundaries in different ways, but there are no major upsets or meltdowns: just a series of small, honest moments of fumbling forward together.
Joanna Scutts is a writer and cultural critic based in New York. She is the author of “The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It.” (Liveright, 2017)