Review: Jenna Ortega Glows In Campy Thriller “Miller’s Girl”

R.C. Baker

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Although imperfect, vehemently so, Jade Halley Bartlett’s Miller’s Girl is still a damn fine time at the movies. This isn’t an easy film to review. The script is beyond pedestrian with all the characters talking as if they’re in an Off-Off-Broadway David Mamet knockoff that’s been produced by drunks. Everyone is too smart for their own good and you’ll occasionally flinch from the garbled wordplay. However, and just hear me out, Bartlett creates a burnished atmosphere where books and literature loom large, and well, that just makes this former English Major happy. Fully realizing that it’s more Valley of the Dolls than Dead Poets Society is part of the movie’s charm. Yes, it’s like trying to extricate Shakespeare from an episode of Beverly Hills 90210, but sometimes you have to get your literary pleasures where you can find them.

The story, which involves the precarious relationship between a high school English teacher (Martin Freeman) and his prize student (Jenna Ortega), is reminiscent of a 90’s erotic thriller, without the, well, eroticism. That’s not to say that it’s not sexy or suspenseful. It is, but in a more bookish (some might say boring) fashion. Bartlett uses this premise to explore the gray area of peoples’ lives when they’re at their lowest; at least that’s the intent. Not necessarily steamy or even transgressive, most moviegoers will be repulsed by the film’s affected narration and forced whimsy, and yet, Bartlett’s willingness to go down this drippy Southern Gothic road without an ounce of reserve drew me into its leatherbound melodrama, even if it’s more paperback trash than Victorian highbrow.

Bartlett seems to have made two movies that melded into one hot mess. On the one hand, she explores the sexually charged interplay between an older man and a young girl, a conceit that’ll get those pearls clutched faster than you can say, “Lolita.”  On the other hand, she’s more interested in their obsession with books than their libidos. Bartlett is obsessed by literature and its disciples the same way Ken Russell is tormented by religion, which means it’s bonkers but strangely intelligent.

Riding a wave of success after Netflix’s Wednesday, Jenna Ortega plays Cairo Sweet with a sultry insouciance. A transfer student in a small Tennessee town Cairo whittles away her days while her parents travel the globe on business. As she smokes and reads books in her rotting mansion, dreaming of the perfect escape from her mundane life, the slushy narration swoons like Tennessee Williams on acid: “I wear longing like a falling veil.” If it were the Eighties, she’d wear patches of The Cure and Bauhaus on her jacket (for some reason she likes Celine Dion). She’s also unusually erudite, having finished the entire English reading list before the semester begins, including James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (oh, come on).

On the first day of school, she meets Jonathan Miller (Freeman), her English teacher who quit writing after his novel was slammed by the critics years prior. Inspired by her intelligence and discursive prose, he’s intent on becoming her protégé. Well, actually, he’s just flattered that she read his novel, which feeds his ego like wet concrete in a ditch. Soon, he’s taking her to local poetry slams and sharing cigs with her before class. Even if he’s crossing a line, he wouldn’t know it is since he’s enjoying playing the part of the literary paragon. His boozy wife, Beatrice (Dagmara Dominczyk of Succession), certainly doesn’t see him that way. A scribe herself, albeit a successful one, every night she downs bottles of wine while reminding him that he’s not a writer anymore, just a teacher. Lovely.

Meanwhile, Jonathan’s fellow teacher Boris Fillmore (Bashir Salahuddin), is also engaged in a dangerous flirtation with Cairo’s bestie, Winnie (Gideon Adlon), who bops around Cairo’s bedroom like a hypersexual gogo dancer. Anyway, after Jonathan gives Cairo an assignment to write a story in the style of her favorite writer and she hands back a Henry Miller-inspired fable involving a tryst between a teacher and student, he realizes he took this protégé thing too far.

Like Whit Stillman on amphetamines, Bartlett’s heightened dialogue is ludicrous but undeniably entertaining. When Jonathan says students at Yale “eat pot brownies and read Joan Didion,” you can either shake your head in disdain or laugh carelessly. I chose the latter. Bartlett also toes the line between parable and reality, without letting us in on the joke, which is lazy filmmaking, but that doesn’t ruin the journey. That is until a pivotal moment in the story that’s so mishandled, stylized, and spineless, it nearly sinks the whole sloppy affair. How can one drop the ball so badly with the most anticipated scene in the movie? The sheer vapidity of the sequence alone will force you to run home and rewatch your battered copy of Poison Ivy, the same movie Miller’s Girl tries to subvert.

The worst thing a movie can be is boring. Bartlett’s debut is definitely affected, absurd, and at times clownish, but it’s never dull. And, if you’re willing to bathe in this Tennessee swamp instead of sprinting to the showers, you’ll find that Bartlett actually has a point of view. Miller’s Girl isn’t really about an illicit affair as much as the dangers of living in a fantasy world. Creatives, particularly English majors, will have a blast with Bartlett’s immersion in this wood-paneled dreamscape where sex-crazed miscreants blur the line between fiction and reality (not to mention they can quote their favorite authors without stuttering). Only if Bartlett stepped outside of this bubble to remember that there’s also an audience involved, well, it wouldn’t have been as fun, would it?

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By R.C. Baker , www.villagevoice.com , a-e-d,FILM ,

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2024-01-26 21:52:40 , The Village Voice , Review: Jenna Ortega Glows In Campy Thriller “Miller’s Girl”

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