When Miller’s Girl was announced a few months ago, it instantly raised the ire of the Age Gap Cops. After all, its plot details sexual tension between a teacher (Martin Freeman, 52) and his student (Jenna Ortega, 21.) That age and power imbalance is an important part of the film, which is a relatively dark thriller. But as usual, depiction does not equal endorsement. And to say that makes the film somehow “controversial” or “wrong” is the province of the sort of person who’d rather review the plot summary than the movie itself.
Miller’s Girl is a sexy thriller set in the literary realm, one that has less in common with Nabokov’s Lolita than with the plot of the David Mamet play “Oleanna.” I avoid using the phrase “erotic thriller,” since the plot has a lot less murder than that genre typically implies. Miller’s Girl tries hard for shock, and it occasionally succeeds, although I’m not clear on exactly what it’s trying to say. Nevertheless, it’s the sort of movie I could see becoming a camp classic.
The film, directed by first-timer Jade Halley Bartlett, is set in Tennessee, allowing all the actors to do luxurious Southern accents, to varying degrees of success. And while there’s not much in the way of actual on-screen sex or nudity, the film offers a lot of read-out-loud literary smut. It’s also set in a high school that looks suspiciously like a college, and there are so few people around in most scenes, even in the classroom, that you’d assume this movie was filmed under tight Covid restrictions.
Rising star Ortega plays the wonderfully-named teenager Cairo Sweet, a literature-obsessed 18-year-old who lives alone in a large mansion, per parents mysteriously MIA. She develops a crush on her teacher, Mr. Miller (Martin Freeman, from the British The Office.) Like most high school English teachers in the movies, he’s got thwarted literary ambitions of his own—and falls to pieces the moment a pretty lady expresses rare interest in his writing. (The “Miller” is a reference both to both Freeman’s characters and Henry Miller, whose novels figure in the plot as something of a stylistic inspiration.)
Miller’s married to Beatrice (Dagmara Domińczyk), the Succession actress who, in her combination of flirting and insults, just about walks away with the movie. The other showy role is that of Gideon Adlon as Winnie, Cairo’s saucy best friend, who talks her into a campaign of teacher seduction. Not a lot of high school students work as bar waitresses, but she does. Adlon, like her Blockers co-star Kathryn Newton in the upcoming Lisa Frankenstein, was playing a horny teenager in that movie in 2018, and still is doing so six years later, at 26.
Miller’s Girl is arriving in late-January, with little promotion despite starring budding A-lister Ortega. It’s far from perfect, but it’s more interesting than most movies today.