There’s something about young adults staring at each other from across the chasm of their twenties that inspires odd, imbalanced and fascinating relationships. Not enough films investigate these strange connections; Julia Hart’s “Miss Stevens” joins a league that only includes Lynn Shelton’s “Laggies,” at least to my knowledge. (I’m not counting Hannah Fidell’s “A Teacher,” primarily because of the sexual dimension present there.)
I’ve seen it a bit from both sides now, as a student and as a loose authority figure of sorts while serving as an intern in youth ministry back in college. Each party wants to impress the other, obtaining their approval and then feeling connected with an age group they secretly aspire to become. They get “older,” not old; “younger,” not young.
“Miss Stevens” understands this reciprocal exchange as it plays out between its titular character Rachel Stevens, played by Lily Rabe, and her rambunctious student Billy, played by Timothée Chalamet. The script from Hart and co-writer Jordon Horowitz understands that there is something more at play in their increasingly raw, personal interactions. Rachel and Billy are old souls (they connect over the rock band America on a car ride) trapped in younger bodies, and they come to resemble inverse images of each other. While the story might not hold up towards the end, the genuine spark in their scenes never dissipates.
On a drama trip chaperoned by Rachel, a former actress herself until a politicized moment of theatrical authenticity sidelines her, she allows herself to see more of Billy than his public-facing front and blasé reputation. Though medically diagnosed with a personality disorder, he is deemed stable enough to self-medicate – a prospect that scares Rachel thoroughly. He craves opportunities to spend time with her for attention and validation, yes. But most importantly, he seeks a more mature connection than the ones he can forge with his fellow classmates on the trip. Lili Reinhart’s prim Margot is far too focused on the thespian tasks ahead for his taste, and Anthony Quintal’s openly gay Sam (who Billy fully accepts) gets fixated on the convention’s hookup culture.
I know this character, in part because I was him to some extent. Chalamet’s instincts are superb in bringing Billy to life – being smarter than the character but never letting that on while making boneheaded decisions. He resists lazy conventions of the sullen goth propagated in teen fiction, turning Billy into a beautiful set of contradictions. He’s moody, but he smiles; it’s not far-fetched to believe that he could mature into Casey Affleck, who played the adult version of his character in “Interstellar.” B /