Miss Stevens IMDB description: “A heart-broken teacher chaperones a group of high schoolers to a state drama competition.”
Why I took it off the list: Lily Rabe. This seriously underrated actress has quickly become one of my favorite performers after her stellar work on season after season of American Horror Story. Most impressively as the demonically possessed timid nun Sister Mary Eunice in Asylum and as the sensitive swamp witch Misty Day in Coven.
While consistently giving magnetic performances time after time in supporting parts (including as a terrifyingly repressed zealot in recent Amazon series The Underground Railroad), Rabe has not really broken out as a leading lady, despite a few attempts at main roles in little-seen shows and independent films.
One of those is Miss Stevens, a 2016 comedy-drama that shockingly flew under the radar and only made just over $4,000 at the US box office . Its commercial failure is even more surprising given the fact that, in addition to Rabe, it also features Call Me by Your Name‘s Timothée Chalamet and Riverdale‘s Lili Reinhart, at a time when both of their stars were firmly on the rise.
So, shocked a film that such an ace cast failed to get much attention, I decided to give it a go.
Review of Miss Stevens
Miss Stevens clearly owes a huge debt to Little Miss Sunshine, something that’s pretty obvious fairly quickly into the runtime. However, while the film hits some familiar beats of a comedic road trip-movie, like the obligatory car trouble, there is a lot less emphasis on quirky hi-jinks and more on the interpersonal dynamics of the characters when they reach their destination.
Also unlike that earlier, ensemble-driven film, the focus is squarely on Rabe’s Rachel Stevens, a somewhat disillusioned high school English teacher, who gets convinced to chaperone a group of talented students to a drama competition. At its core, Miss Stevens follows predictable beats of a story about a depressed character finding renewed passion and vibrancy in life through helping others.
However, it works and is a pretty satisfying experience due to its charming cast and sharp writing and direction. Julia Hart, in her directorial debut, proves to be an expert at abruptly cutting between the optimistic promise of one scene to the awkward reality of the outcome. The film showcases a wise and knowing comedic voice, particularly in the hilarious banter between the mismatched group.
The driving force of the plot, that one of the kids has to win a theater competition to save the school’s arts program, is overly familiar and little bit too low stakes. But luckily plenty of meaty drama comes from the delicate balance that Rachel tries to maintain between her sense of professionalism and her drive to emphasize with and guide the kids under her charge.
The off-kilter yet soothing musical score (which makes great use of a musical saw) and some well-chosen upbeat classic rock tracks with melancholy lyrics also nicely complement the drama and help to convey the sense of something off-balance about the calmly collected Miss Stevens lurking within.
It’s Rabe’s Show And She Effortlessly Steals it
Despite the familiar trappings of the narrative, the film is undoubtedly elevated by some exceptional work from Rabe. The role, originally meant for Scary Movie alum Anna Faris, proves an ideal fit for the talented actress, who is always great at inhabiting characters who are sweet and optimistic on the surface but hiding a resigned and weary inner life. She’s absolutely heartbreaking delivering a monologue about her late actress mother, something clearly close to home and emotional for Rabe.
She also gets to showcase her considerable comedy chops here, excelling in a montage of the self-conscious woman rehearsing the speeches she’ll give to her next class and in an awkward attempted seduction where she walks in on her would-be lover watching a porn film.
Chalamet and Rabe work well together, effortlessly conveying the sweet bond that forms between the characters. And Lili Reinhart excels as the perfectionist know-it-all whose need to always be right lies a deep vulnerability, showing off her great comedic timing.
Final Score: 7/10
Worth Checking Out?
If you enjoy a quirky comedy-drama a la Little Miss Sunshine then yes. A small story, but one brimming with wisdom and charm, Miss Stevens is a great showcase for Lily Rabe’s talents, as well as those of the younger members of the cast.
Miss Stevens (2016)
Directed by Julia Hart
Written by Julia Hart, Jordan Horowitz