January 25th, 2024
MOVIE: MILLER’S GIRL
STARRING: MARTIN FREEMAN, JENNA ORTEGA, BASHIR SALAHUDDIN, GIDEON ADLON, DAGMARA DOMINCZYK
DIRECTED BY: JADE HALLEY BARTLETT
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 2 STARS (Out of 4)
In 1967, Mike Nichols lit a flame with The Graduate, not just for those who had fantasies of sleeping with someone’s mother, but with acute observation of those disillusioned under the cloud of the Vietnam War. If the attempt for Miller’s Girl is to be a revival of what Nichols created, along with touching an erotic or often taboo subject matter, it walks up to the edge but never fully commits. Director Jade Halley Bartlett wants us to discuss teenagers lusting after their teachers but fails to ground it in any real efforts to thrill the audience. Miller’s Girl is trying too hard to break a sweat.
The pairing of Martin Freeman and the ever-popular Jenna Ortega is an odd approach from the jump, but what instantly fails is a script from Barlett, which fails to work separately from the provocative subject matter. Jonathan Miller (Freeman) is the literature teacher at a small Tennessee high school, eager to teach, but jaded with the world. The first student he meets is the highly intellectual Cairo (Ortega). She’s read all the books assigned over the summer and her writing is unlike anything that Mr. Miller has read before. He’s a successfully published author, but his focus is on censorship, and challenging his students to push the boundaries. That includes Cairo, but he may be giving her too much attention, and she is intrigued to see where the attention goes.
Bartlett has written something that could be described as fresh and an attempt to revive an erotic thriller- although I think Deep Water already did that. The many problems are the surrounding characters or lack of characters. By all accounts, the school and the town itself consist of five people. Cairo, her friend Winnie (Gideon Adlon), openly flirts with the PE teacher Mr. Fillmore (played by Bashir Salahuddin). Then you have Mr. Miller and his aggressively alcoholic wife (played by Succession star Dagmara Dominczyk) who never steps outside the house, nor does she stop playing the “I’m too busy to give you my attention” wife. Were the film rooted in a sense of reality and not a world void of all other humans, we might be able to feel tension build, and the weight of a teacher getting too close to his younger student.
It’s never fair to judge a film for what you want it to do, but Miller’s Girl could have succeeded by going the distance but instead wants to tempt without a release. Although that may be the point, where Mr. Miller gives Cairo a mid-term assignment, challenging her to write in her favorite author’s voice, which she chooses Henry Miller. This leads to her writing arousing her teacher and Bartlett blurs the lines on what happens between the two when a misplacing of cellphones leads to a chance encounter. It’s that ambiguity that frustrates, not allowing the characters to push the boundaries, nor letting realistic emotions become a factor.
The bottom line is that Miller’s Girl lacks the depth, nor the courage, to truly inspect the taboos it wants to focus on. There’s a conversation about consequences until the ending is abrupt to a fault. On top of that, Freeman and Ortega are oddly matched, rendering any sexual tension strictly made-believe. Similar films such as 1993s Crush, Knock Knock, or Atom Egoyan’s Chloe were all willing to push the limits further. Miller’s Girl is sadly playing high school games.
MILLER’S GIRL IS IN THEATERS FRIDAY JANUARY 26TH, 2024.
Written by: Leo Brady