By Greg Carlson
Following a world premiere at the Palm Springs Film Festival, Jade Halley Bartlett’s feature debut as writer-director received a January theatrical release via Lionsgate. Despite the provocative subject matter and the presence of Jenna Ortega in the leading role, the absolutely dismal box office returns and mixed reviews of “Miller’s Girl” suggest the movie will soon be mostly forgotten. But for those willing to embrace the hothouse tone of Bartlett’s Southern Gothic-adjacent purple prose and the tongue-in-cheek black comedy that knowingly flirts with all kinds of teacher-pupil cliches, Bartlett’s inaugural outing is lurid, trashy fun.
Ortega plays the deliciously-named Cairo Sweet, an 18-year-old high school senior with literary ambitions and admission to Yale on her mind. Living alone in an empty mansion absent of neglectful attorney parents off somewhere to indulge their own pleasures and shirk any child-rearing responsibilities, Cairo walks to school each day through a kudzu-covered stand of trees like Little Red Riding Hood – or perhaps the Big Bad Wolf. Her sexually frustrated creative writing teacher Jonathan Miller (Martin Freeman) asks her, “Don’t you get scared, walking through those woods?” Cairo’s reply: “I’m the scariest thing in there.”
Bartlett goes on to flex her affinity for all kinds of allusions, none more intense than the incorporation of Henry Miller’s “Under the Roofs of Paris,” which Cairo totes, along with a copy of Jonathan’s moldering short story collection, “Apostrophes and Ampersands,” to class. The inclusion of the latter among Cairo’s stack simultaneously flatters and shames Jonathan, since his own dreams of bestselling fame and fortune have long been resigned to life as an educator. He is also reminded daily of his shortcomings by dipsomaniac wife Beatrice (Dagmara Domińczyk), who can never quite tear herself away from the phone long enough to intimately connect with him.
I am fascinated with the disagreements over the movie’s self-awareness, or lack thereof. Katie Walsh writes about what she calls the Completely Bonkers Cinematic Canon, placing herself among those who believe that Bartlett takes “Miller’s Girl” too seriously. Beauty is surely in the eye of the beholder, since my own gut feeling is that the filmmaker and her actors deliberately violate Walsh’s condition that a Completely Bonkers film “cannot wink or nudge at the audience.” To my eye, Bartlett’s metatextual flourishes, especially those contained in the running conversations between Jonathan and his pal Coach Fillmore (Bashir Salahuddin), offer all the necessary winks and nudges and then some.
The dual Millers – Jonathan and Henry – become dueling Millers as Bartlett fulfills some expectations of the erotic thrillers of the 1990s while undermining others with thought-provoking choices more in tune with contemporary conversations surrounding consent, ethics, gender dynamics, and power differentials. Bartlett makes a confident decision to let the viewer decide the extent of intimacy between Cairo and Jonathan by staging key scenes as dreamlike and possibly imagined fictions.
“Miller’s Girl” is nowhere near perfect. It’s not always successful. But it did, at various points, call to mind a range of texts, including the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” and Rob Cohen’s “The Boy Next Door” – and that’s enough for me.
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