Miller’s Girl (2024)

by - January 26th, 2024 - Movie Reviews


Stylish and Well-Acted Miller’s Girl Lacking Emotional Substance

Miller’s Girl has a Tennessee Williams drawl as thick as molasses. Writer-director Jade Halley Bartlett makes her feature-length debut with this sweaty slice of Southern-gothic hokum, but her teacher-student, did-they-or-didn’t-they melodrama — a slice of heavily accented cheese — frustratingly falls short of being a success.

Miller’s Girl (2024) | PHOTO: Lionsgate

With a strong ensemble cast led by Martin Freeman and Jenna Ortega, there’s plenty worth celebrating. Unfortunately, there’s an equal amount to be annoyed with. The film frequently vacillates between being insightful and facile — many times within the same scene — and because of this, it’s incredibly difficult to generate more than an emotionally cursory involvement in what is going on.

Jonathan Miller (Freeman) is an unsuccessful author who now teaches an advanced English course at a secluded Tennessee high school. On the first day of the new semester, Cairo Sweet (Ortega) walks into his class and everything changes. She’s the sheltered daughter of wealthy lawyers, neither of whom is ever home and are seemingly content to leave the whip-smart 18-year-old to her own devices. Miller is instantly captivated by his new pupil, her intellectual acumen arousing his own literary instincts as they haven’t been in quite some time.

To Bartlett’s credit, the filmmaker refuses to play events out conventionally. Almost the entire first half is focused on fleshing out the intricacies of Miller and Sweet’s increasingly friendly relationship. As a teacher, the former should know better than to allow a student to get this chummy. As learned as the latter may be, the teenager is also a romantic neophyte, and it’s likely she’s seeing more blossoming between them than actually exists.

Ortega is a budding movie star, and her performance here cements that. When the worm turns and the pupil gets angry at the professor and decides to show him who really wields all the power, Bartlett’s visual presentation of the character immediately changes. Cinematographer Daniel Brothers allows Cairo to dominate the frame, and Ortega fills it with smolderingly focused intensity. She’s channeling her inner Alicia Silverstone circa The Crush or a Freeway-era Reese Witherspoon — yet somehow is also emulating Golden Age stars like Jean Simmons or Lana Turner. To call this impressive would be to understate things considerably.

Freeman is in his befuddled everyman mode, and even with the addition of a heavy Southern accent, this is the type of performance the veteran character actor could give in his sleep. Yet he’s still quite good, especially in his scenes with Top Gun: Maverick scene-stealer Bashir Salahuddin (as a fellow teacher who claims to know when to allow female students to flirt and when to nip that sort of thing in the bud). The two are excellent whenever they share the screen, most notably near the end, when they are forced to analyze the fragility of their friendship.

But the film’s best performances come from Blockers and The Mustang actor Gideon Adlon and Succession star Dagmara Dominczyk. The former stupendously portrays Cairo’s outgoing and flirty BFF Winnie, while the latter is icily sensational as Miller’s alcoholically domineering wife. Bartlett allows both of their characters to defy convention and stray far from cliché, and each of them deftly rises to the challenge. If anything, I kept wanting the story to be more about them, and I’d love to have learned more about what it was that made each woman tick.

Miller’s Girl (2024) | PHOTO: Lionsgate

That’s not the story, though, and while the one Bartlett is telling isn’t exactly original, I do appreciate that she doesn’t spell our every little thing. The problem is that, in her ephemeral zeal to keep certain aspects of what exactly transpired between Miller and Cairo secret, she has to play up the sensationalistic aspects to an almost ridiculous degree. The all-consuming emotional whirlwind that’s coming for the both of them is too manufactured, too unearned, and it’s about as substantive and as healthy as the cigarette smoke that cinematically encircles the duo far too often.

As a showcase for Ortega’s star power, Miller’s Girl does get the job done. But as a piece of pulpy, post-#MeToo storytelling with a potential Disclosure-meets–Gone Girl twist, Bartlett’s dramatic thriller unfortunately comes up short. Much like Cairo’s misbegotten literary assignment that starts the disaster ball rolling down the hill straight at Mr. Miller’s head, the film does not make the grade, and ultimately leaves far too much to be desired.

Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)

Leave a Reply