miss stevens
No one pays a teacher what they are worth, and no one who has never been a teacher can appreciate what a difficult job it is. Especially teaching high school, especially teaching drama or speech or English, or anything that has to tap into the emotional experiences of the student. Julia Hart’s MISS STEVENS, which made its world premiere at SXSW, captures the impossible position that every teacher is put in, wanting to be there for the student and supporting them but also maintaining that distance that is necessary to be able to teach them and remain an authority figure.

In Hart’s film, Lily Rabe plays Rachel Stevens, a high school English teacher roped into taking three students to a drama competition. One of the students, Billy (Timotheé Chalamet) has not been focused at school and over the course of the weekend develops an inappropriate crush on his teacher. But this is not a story of a covert relationship that leads to scandal, thankfully. In the compressed timeline of three days, Hart puts Rabe in the most vulnerable place and we watch her struggle to find exactly how to relate to these students. Billy is on the verge of being a victim of the education system, it is her job to keep him invested in his learning and moving forward in his life. He’s also a great kid, smart and sensitive and going to be an amazing person when he grows up – if he can just get there. How can she help him do that without encouraging the other feelings he seems to be developing?

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But more than Billy’s story, there is Rachel’s own life, dealing with her mother’s death, dealing with being single at age 29 with no prospects, dealing with literally having no friends and spending all day with teenagers. I will tell you from personal experience, I have never felt so alone in a group of people as when I was teaching high school at age 24. They are not your friends, but they are the only people you see on a regular basis, and they are almost adults. MISS STEVENS captures that like no other film I’ve ever seen. And I love that it is just snapshot in her life. She doesn’t have it all figured out by the end of the weekend, but she’s gotten through the weekend, and sometimes that’s the best you can hope for.

MISS STEVENS is Julia Hart’s debut as a director, although she wrote the neo-feministic western thriller THE KEEPING ROOM which featured some other very strong women put in an impossible place, but is an entirely different film. With MISS STEVENS, Hart effortless moves between comedy and drama and allows each character to slowly grow from scene to scene. By the end of the film you feel like you’ve been on the road trip as well, and lived through all these experiences. I remembered the best part of teaching, which is investing in someone else’s success. As a film programmer, I feel I still get to do that, when I discover a new talented filmmaker and help them take their career to the next level. As a teacher, you are doing that when they are the most susceptible to defeat. With each of her students hitting an unexpected low over the weekend, Miss Stevens has to be there to help them through, as a confidant, as a cheerleader, as a counselor, and yes, as a friend, she pulls joy (or at least acceptance) from the jaws of despair. Lily Rabe is dynamic and unforgettable in this role, and each of the students shine as well, stealing a bit of the spotlight as they hit their emotional peak. Rabe, as Stevens, must try to keep calm in the madness around her, and find a way to be herself, in a place where she really has no peers.

It’s a great film. An unexpected gem that touches on a reality that I think few people know, but now can experience. Thank you  Julia Hart.

Bears Fonte covers indie film for AMFM Magazine and programs and consults for film festivals nationwide.  He is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival as well as the former Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival.  His short The Secret Keeper played at 40 festivals, his feature iCrime was released in 2011 by Vicious Circle.

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