“I’m 18 and highly unremarkable.”
So starts “Miller’s Girl,” a drama-slash-psychological thriller that serves more so as an indictment of modern multilayered sexual politics than an (as marketed) after school special. As our lead character Cairo Sweet (Jenna Ortega) says, “longing” to experience something is the most dangerous force there is, and for Cairo, that longing culminates in a misguided crush and a politicized heartbreak with a professor (Martin Freeman).
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High school student Cairo enrolls in a creative writing class taught by frustrated novelist Jonathan Miller (Freeman), who immediately takes a liking to her after spotting that she has a copies of both his debut novel and Henry Miller’s salacious works. Written and directed by Jade Halley Bartlett, “Miller’s Girl” plays on the titular Mr. Miller and the real-life author Miller himself, with Cairo’s compulsion to impress and find solace in her teacher further radicalized by taking on Miller’s prose in an ode to Mr. Miller himself.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. This is a story about an 18-year-old’s devastation, not her deception. Sure, Mr. Miller and Cairo comprise the ’90s-esque trope of a teacher-student drama, with the student setting out to ruin the life of her older male obsessee. But Cairo is arguably not a vindictive protégé; instead, she is merely a highly educated and emotionally immature girl, but a girl nonetheless.
The undercurrent of censorship in sexuality is blatantly stated early on in the film. Cairo’s best friend Winnie (Gideon Adlon) loves to tease the high school coach (Bashir Salahuddin) in faux flirting; she’s openly queer but prefers to use her sexuality to even the power playing field between teachers and students in their small Tennessee town. Winnie serves her teachers alcohol at the local diner, shamelessly struts her sexual prowess, and even hides a professor’s phone in her bra. Cairo pretends to be embarrassed by her best friend, but really she is in awe: This is what another form of power looks like, and Cairo begins to experiment with her own agency in regards to befriending Mr. Miller.
While Winnie has a more “adult” approach to sex and relationships, virginal Cairo opts to change her aesthetic and weaponize her writing talents to win over the married and significantly older Mr. Miller in a slow burn drama, one that capitalizes on the current culture.
Unbeknownst to Cairo, the timing of her crush on him couldn’t be better: Mr. Miller’s alcoholic wife Beatrice (a wickedly perfect Dagmara Domińczyk) emasculates him daily and openly says she doesn’t even consider him to be a real writer. The whole town seems to know that Mr. Miller’s sexual frustrations directly correlate with his ability to write, and Cairo channels her and Mr. Miller’s shared insecurities of not being good enough on the page and in bed to inspire both of their respective works.
The only issue, besides the moral quandries of the sadly believable premise, is that Cairo opts to declare her love for Mr. Miller in her midterm short story, written in the provocative and graphically sensual tone of Henry Miller. A decent quarter of the film is that story being acted out by both Freeman and Ortega in a fantasy sequence as an alternate story-within-a-story. Upon finishing the short story’s pages, Mr. Miller declares it “pornography” and fails Cairo, which sinks her GPA and threatens her application acceptance to Yale. Cairo takes revenge at Mr. Miller for both rebuking her advances and giving her a poor grade by taking it up with the Board of Education and citing Mr. Miller’s inappropriate mentorship, which included taking her to after school literary events, whispering in her ear, and just generally speaking to her like a peer with wisps of sexual undertones.
Did Mr. Miller take advantage of Cairo’s mature intellect, despite her age? Was Cairo plotting to destroy Mr. Miller’s career all along by way of seduction? Or are both players truly innocent and guilty as they are merely two victims of miscommunication and blurred lines in a creative field?
Throughout the film, Mr. Miller is open with his wife that Cairo is a promising student in his class, one that yes, toys with the power dynamics, but in a thrilling and amusing way. Cairo, meanwhile, seductively says that as a teen girl, she is the most dangerous thing in the forest surrounding their private school campus…and maybe she really is.
Ortega at first seems miscast in the role, relying more on her “Wednesday” deadpan nature than a coy femme fatale persona. But the “Wednesday”-ness of her performance later underlines just how little in control her character Cairo really is: Cairo is just a kid, albeit a smart one, and the film charts how she attempts to learn how to adapt to play amongst the adults and take on not only Mr. Miller and his wife Beatrice but the entire education system. How close is too close, and how mature is mature enough?
Ortega’s performance in the final act solidifies the casting choice, especially opposite Adlon’s Winnie in a series of bedroom-set scenes that involve the duo debating the literary essence of virginity while alternating between sucking on lollipops and cigarettes. Yes, teenage girls are dangerous, especially when rebellious, smart, and mature. But what we also see is that Mr. Miller is just a stunted emotional kid as well, floundering in the infantilization of his intellect that stalled and sent him back to school, quite literally. He is no literary master; he’s not even the master of his own story, stuck between the dueling forces of Beatrice and Cairo, who are both arguably a whole lot smarter than he is.
The intricacy of where to place blame in “Miller’s Girl” makes the film one worth talking about. Cairo alleges that Mr. Miller built the environment by which the lines between teacher and student were blurred; while their relationship was never physically intimate, the shared reliance on each other for inspiration made for an inappropriate layer. Yet as Cairo threatens to pose a fabricated claim against Mr. Miller to make the emotional loss of their friendship more tangible, Winnie steps in as a voice of reason. She too is scared of what Cairo is capable of, but does Cairo even know her own power?
As the film, produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, concludes, there is no hero or villain, only a murky undercurrent questioning whether having a muse is inherently predatory or not. And that story is worth writing.
“Miller’s Girl” will be available in theaters on Friday, January 26 from Lionsgate.
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