Between “Wednesday” and her previous forays with the “Scream” franchise, Jenna Ortega might be enjoying a pop-culture moment, but even that star power can’t overcome the flaws in “Miller’s Girl,” a sort-of psychological, semi-erotic drama that, despite its literary pretensions, possesses roughly the intellectual heft of a perfume ad. Dated and creepy in all the wrong ways, it’s a movie that might have escaped derision in the 1980s but deserves to get slapped around today.
Indeed, more than anything, this debut feature from writer-director Jade Halley Bartlett feels like a modern version of “The Crush” – one of those icky ‘90s artifacts that really didn’t age well – with a teenage Alicia Silverstone seeking to seduce a much older Cary Elwes and lashing out when he doesn’t fully succumb to her charms.
Here, the filmmakers make a point of noting that the protagonist, Ortega’s Cairo Sweet, has turned 18, but she’s still a high-school student when she develops a strangely intense relationship with her teacher, Jonathan Miller (Martin Freeman), who frequently sees her tromping through the woods from the mansion she occupies while her absentee parents are traveling.
“I’m the scariest thing in there,” she says, when he asks her about walking that path alone.
Alas, Jonathan doesn’t have the good sense to listen to that warning, dazzled as he is by Cairo’s writing talent and engagement, as well as the fact that she read his largely ignored book. At first blush the thrill of that discovery proves understandable, sort of, but it’s clear the teacher is sorely lacking inspiration as he sleepwalks through life, dealing with an alcoholic, work-obsessed wife (“Succession’s” Dagmara Domińczyk) who barely tolerates him.
Set in a remote corner of Tennessee (which explains the Southern accents that drop in and out), the story plays off Cairo’s off-the-charts potential and burning desire to get out, citing Yale as a goal, juxtaposed with Jonathan’s sense of entrapment. That unfolds, alas, against a gender and power dynamic that’s a mixture of fantasies run amok, though it’s frankly hard to tell if the writing is consciously provocative or simply tone-deaf.
Everyone in the cast deserves better, but for Ortega, the role provides one of those overt signals she’s no longer the girl people watched on the Disney Channel, a message that seems particularly unnecessary given her abundant media exposure. Nor does it help that the film saddles her with a running narration designed to sound literary in style (while namechecking authors like Henry Miller) that just feels like an especially pretentious episode of “Gossip Girl.”
While the age gap has served as the focus of advance coverage, the most uncomfortable aspect of “Miller’s Girl” involves portraying Cairo and her friend Winnie (Gideon Adlon) as the vaguely predatory pursuers of their much-older teachers. The latter brazenly flirts with Jonathan’s best pal (“Top Gun: Maverick’s” Bashir Salahuddin), who, by not backing away immediately, appears to be playing with fire as well, just on a slightly lower setting.
The film is produced by, among others, Seth Rogen, so there were some adults in the room enabling its questionable decisions. “No excuses to be made for your choices,” Cairo muses in voiceover near the end. At least she, and the filmmakers, got that part right.
“Miller’s Girl” premieres January 26 in US theaters. It’s rated R.
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