MILLER'S GIRL (2024)
Release Date: 01/26/24 [Cinemas]
Genre: Comedy. Drama.
"A creative writing assignment yields complex results between a teacher and his talented student."
OUR MOVIE REVIEW:
“You can’t blur the lines, and then expect me to see a boundary once I’ve suddenly crossed it.”
Consider the power of words and language for a moment. Their ability to convey our most intense feelings is an evolutionary miracle; literature and poetry contextualize our dreams, motivations, and inspirations and identify the pieces of life we didn't realize we were missing. And sometimes, those words can put us in boiling hot water.
Miller's Girl, a fantastical and auspicious debut by writer/director Jade Halley Bartlett, uses literature to graft a new skin over the romantic dynamic of the young girl/older man trope. The film, produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, is not a remarkably original story; the perilous Lolita-esque yarn has been spun quite often, but Miller's Girl is constructed engagingly.
Starring Martin Freeman and Jenna Ortega, Miller's Girl is a film about literature and its power once it has left the page. It is a story about realizing ambition and addressing challenges. Freeman is Jonathan Miller, an English teacher and former writer, who takes a shine to Cairo Sweet (Ortega), who is not only well-read for a high school senior but has an exquisite gift with the pen herself. For the midterm, Miller encourages Cairo to write like her favorite author, whose work is not allowed on the school curriculum. She turns in an exceptional but graphic fictional anecdote of a student seducing and bedding her English teacher. Miller denounces her story and rebuffs her defense of it. Hurt and upset, Cairo turns her paper into the Vice Principal. This is the tipping point of the story.
But how did we get here? And, more importantly, why? The sexual energy between Freeman's Miller and Ortega's Cairo is hardly covert. The subtextual connection can be seen from space yet is exhibited through intelligent dialogue and comedic exchanges. Miller is also a writer. But he hasn't written in years and is elated that Cairo read his book and then quoted it back to him. There is validation there that Jon does not receive from his wife, played by Dagmara Dominczyk; she is also an author and constantly battles her agent and her own alcoholic tendencies, not leaving much attention for Jon. She even makes him exit the room because she couldn't think with him in her presence.
Ortega's Cairo loves to read and write but has nothing substantial to write about herself. But this is only part of her conflict. She hits a wall preparing her college application, needing to craft a personal story. Her friend, Winnie (Gideon Adlon), is coarse and vulgar, always flirting with anyone and everyone. Winnie jokes about seducing the physics teacher/baseball coach Fillmore (Bashir Salahuddin). This idea of flirting with authority to get your way runs concurrently with Cairo's need for an inspirational tale to stick to her Yale application and her growing closeness to Jon Miller.
Miller and Cairo meet up before and after school, smoking cigarettes and attending poetry slams, forging a closer connection. This leaves the viewer wondering how much of Cairo's attraction to Miller was genuine and how much was planted to provide the seeds of an excellent personal story later. In a regrettably cheesy scene, Jon is standing in the rain outside Cairo's home, returning her cell phone that she "left" at school that somehow ended up in his bag. Cairo walks out of her empty mansion – her parents are lawyers who are always on vacation – and meets Jon in the front yard. They exchange longing glances before kissing. We are led to believe this happens, despite the scene being shot like a fantasy and neither character copping to the kiss later in the film.
An argument could be made that Cairo weaponizes her sexuality, that she targeted Jon due to access and his vulnerable state. But another argument could be made that the teacher, the adult, and the presumably responsible party allowed things to progress that never should have. The film ends on an ambiguous ending that enables these pontifications to exist. Except the ending isn't as vague as it tries to be. More on that later.
Both leads, Freeman and Ortega, are believable and exciting. Freeman is devoid of his usual snarky approach to characters; he plays Jon Miller pretty straight, even reflective. This makes him incredibly relatable. Ortega's Cairo is feisty but not obstinate. Cairo reminds me of the character Juno, but less Juno-ish. Cairo knows she's intelligent, motivated, and capable but feels trapped. Her parents ostensibly abandoned her in Tennessee (all her peers are applying to Vanderbilt next year). She pines for Yale and mostly an escape from Tennessee. Writers and high school students share that brutal commonality of romanticizing a faraway destination while condemning their current situation – Cairo embodies both archetypes satisfactorily, this being a more mature and baring role for Ortega.
The rest of the cast complements the leads and adds their own flavor and spice. The most enjoyable would be Fillmore, who lights up every scene he is in. His give-and-take banter with Miller is charming. Dominczyk possesses flashes of brilliant aloofness and ambivalence. While she doesn't share a scene with Cairo, they both hold identical positions on Miller. They both see his potential as a writer, and each has a commanding scene where they chastise his mediocrity and lack of ambition. They echo mutual frustration at his incredible capability and lack of drive to achieve substance. The variance begins with their reactive results; Dominczyk belittles and disarms, whereas Ortega manipulates and exploits. Winnie, the friend, confidant, and consummate flirt, indulges Cairo but also takes an inexplicable turn later in the film, where real consequences are finally uncovered. It was a stark pivot that I didn't see coming, and I don't know if I bought it. Regardless, Adlon does well with the role, given her acting body of work is relatively small.
It is easy to tell Miller's Girl was handled by a first-time director. This is not a critique but an observation. It is a small film. Few locations are used, the cast is a small ensemble, and a tried-and-true narrative is written in a different font. This film is Bartlett's coming out party, she is having fun and has made a good film. Now, she needs to make a better one. There is an extraordinary scene where Cairo confronts Jon; beats of quiet and contemplation play out. I was moved by this exchange of emptiness in the air, filled with regret and tears. Bartlett's capabilities as a storyteller will only improve from now on.
The unambiguous ending speaks to my overall feeling about my experience with Miller's Girl. The dialogue is intriguing and brilliant, and Miller's Girl held my interest for its tight 90-minute runtime. However, the sharp writing did not do enough to assuage the film's desire for fulfillment. Miller's Girl ends not completed, as if there was more to say and do. While laced with some of the best dialogue in recent years, the script feels more like the first draft of a story still being discovered. The smirky ending we are given cannot justify itself, because we can see the closure we are meant to witness a scene or two away that never materializes.
There is a heart at the center of this film that pumps with black ambition, cold nerve, and snappy dialogue amplified by Freeman and Ortega's electric chemistry. And for that, I loved it. Miller's Girl earns its wings in the pantheon of the forbidden desire trope. Miller's Girl is worth the watch, though you may still feel hungry when it's over. When critiquing a film's validity and power, I often challenge myself with whether I would journey to watch it again or recommend it to anyone else. I would implore any curious viewer to give it a shot, though you may also want a little more when it abruptly ends.