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‘Miller’s Girl’ Review: A Small-Town Teen Learns That Adult Ambition Comes at a Steep Price

“Miller’s Girl,” about a relationship that develops between a wise-beyond-her-years teenager and her intellectually undernourished teacher, feels like catnip for the circular discourse of Film Twitter, but it’s hard to tell where a study of post-#MeToo power dynamics will land with moviegoers in the real world.

Written, produced and directed by Jade Halley Bartlett, the film is both impressively erudite and unrelentingly self-aware, a combination it bravely attempts but doesn’t quite fully balance. But Jenna Ortega’s movie-star confidence in the title role more than eclipses Martin Freeman’s shoe-leather character acting, a perhaps inevitable outcome given the age and gender politics exercised in its story — but not necessarily one that gets at something truly interesting.

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Ortega (“Wednesday”) plays Cairo Sweet, a high school student living in a small Tennessee town while her absent lawyer parents travel the globe on unnamed business. Summed up with cheeky precision by her best friend Winnie (Gideon Adlon, “The Mustang”) as “just another run-of-the-mill generationally wealthy gal living in a haunted ancestral mansion,” bookish Cairo embarks on her senior year with an understandable desperation to get out of the provincial South, or at least a determination to experience something, anything that lives up to the rhapsodic lives of the authors she idolizes. When she meets her literature teacher, Jonathan Miller (Freeman), she finds an adult invested in her budding writing talent, and he a protégé into whom he can pour his own unrealized ambitions as a novelist.

Encouraged by the flirtations he witnesses between Winnie and his fellow teacher, Boris Fillmore (Bashir Salahuddin, “Top Gun: Maverick”), Jonathan lets himself be seduced by Cairo’s prodigious literacy (including a complimentary familiarity with his own book), not to mention her receptiveness to his attention. But while she approaches their developing relationship almost sociologically, seeking an opportunity to dimensionalize her unremarkable teenage life, he deludes himself in believing he’s more interested in her intellectually than physically in much the same way he deludes himself in believing he’s not a teacher but a writer in between masterpieces — the latter a perception his oversexed, workaholic wife Beatrice (Dagmara Domińczyk, “Succession”) mercilessly dresses down at every opportunity.

With midterms looming, Jonathan gives Cairo a special assignment: write an essay in the style of an author she admires. Not long after, a mix-up in the classroom lands her cell phone in his possession, and the two of them confront their mutual attraction when he drives to return it to her. Though neither will specify what ensued during their private encounter, an emboldened Cairo delivers a midterm essay inspired by no less than Henry Miller, in which she thinly disguises Jonathan as her subject and proceeds to write a real boner-jam of a liaison between them. It finally prompts Jonathan to put a stop to things, but he’s already gone too far — with her feelings, much less (potentially) with her body. As the two of them try to navigate the repercussions of their inappropriate intimacy, Cairo and Jonathan are both confronted by some unpleasant but undeniable realizations about their lives, their ambitions and the role they may really be playing in the world around them.

Bartlett’s screenplay simultaneously narrates the sequence of events that unfolds between Cairo and Jonathan and comments upon them, presumably to elevate “Miller’s Girl” from a garden-variety erotic thriller to something more sophisticated and provocative. Handsome and well-shot by cinematographer Daniel Brothers (“Trixie Motel”), it occasionally succeeds, as when the two of them bond during a poetry reading that showcases the hidden artistic depths of the community and people in their Tennessee town. But as director, she can’t resist telegraphing their mounting mutual attraction, as when she squeezes them next to one another during the reading instead of at an appropriate teacher-student distance, importantly at a point when it’s not yet appropriate — or really, earned — for them to be quite so aggressively tempted.

It’s unsurprising that Jonathan gravitates to Cairo — though Domińczyk exudes womanly sexuality, swaggering through the movie in her undergarments, Beatrice is more committed to her cell phone and any readily-available brown liquor than she is to him. Moreover, Beatrice speaks to him with a brutal honesty that, over the course of their marriage, has clearly yellowed their affection for one another. But Jonathan’s palpable interest in Cairo immediately overshadows the comparative complexity of his relationship with Beatrice as every exchange feels too close and too private. For an educator well-versed in classic literary conceits, playing a horny teacher oblivious to the outcome of a tryst with a student feels disappointingly broad and obvious.

The bigger problem that ensues from this inevitable, formulaic sequence of events is it goes nowhere for either character other than where we expect — or the movie fails to do so, anyway. Jonathan’s increasing fecklessness as his life unravels makes him an easy and deserving target for punishment, both for authority figures in his orbit and for the audience. For Cairo, meanwhile, his betrayal (as a companion, much less as an educator) offers the opportunity in her for a sociopath’s origin story, a grand transformation in which her desperate yearning for melodrama and a thirst for vengeance falls into perfect lockstep. It feels like a regressive kind of empowerment that you only get this cleanly in, well, a movie.

That said, so much potential lingers from the fallout of an imploded student-teacher affair — however consummated — converging with her naive romantic notions and the absence of guidance from parents or authority figures, especially in a conservative Southern town that may not place blame on him to protect a minor from exploitation as readily as it should. Instead, “Miller’s Girl” delivers a tale whose transgressions are stylish but disappointingly predictable, one written with skillful knowledge of form but not the maturity to implement it with originality. At the beginning of the film, Cairo sets out to identify her “greatest achievement”; her search gives clearly multitalented filmmaker Jade Halley Bartlett an admirable first effort, but as Jonathan Miller might say to one of his more underwhelming students, there’s much room for improvement.

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