Jenna Ortega's stark rise as Gen Z's goth-glam princess takes a pointless, awkward turn in “Miller’s Girl,” a new romantic horror movie about cerebral people that's simply tiresome.
Written and directed by newcomer Jade Halley Bartlett, the movie retells the classic story of a teenage girl smitten by her older teacher and a tumble into seduction. It wants to be close to Vladimir Nabokov, but it's more “Don't Stand So Close to Me” by The Police.
Ortega stars as 18-year-old Tennessee student Cairo Sweet, a precocious and wealthy young lady with a tragic, icy cool personality. “Literature is my solace in the solitude and writing is my only means of escape,” she says, like most 18-year-olds do.
Sweet is the kind of student who reads the long list of suggested texts before school even starts and devours “Finnegans Wake” of her own volition. She has a 4.6 GPA and “crippling ennui." She also dresses like Britney Spears circa “…Baby One More Time.”
Sweet latches onto unmoored literature teacher Jonathan Miller, a former writer — author of “Apostrophes and Ampersands: Six Abysmally Romantic Short Stories” — who hasn't put pen to paper since he got married and started teaching. He's played by a hangdog Martin Freeman, wonderfully anguished and pained.
“You’re not a writer,” his wife baits him. “You chose to be a teacher. Why would I see you as anything else?” She's played by Dagmara Domińczyk, a half-drawn woman who is constantly working, prickly and hurtful. To prove that she's wise, she uses words like “vituperation.”
Our unhappy Miller begins spending more and more time with his prize student, awakened by her writing skills and her apparent interest in him. “You’re exceptionally talented,” he tells her. Her hunger for approval almost bursts through the screen.
They sit around and quote memorized passages of each others' work to the other. “You do see me and I see you,” she tells him. There are as many red flags waving as during hurricane season.
“Teenage girls are dangerous,” his wife says. “They’re full of emotional violence and vituperation. I hope you know what you’re doing.” He doesn't.
Ortega mimics much of her chilly Wednesday Addams in the role, undercurrents of savagery popping up now and again through the shivering stillness. There's no warmth here. Mr. Miller is being seduced by a copy of the Paris Review.
Fact and fantasy get confused between these two. Are they really lovers? Or might it all be in her head? Bartlett coyly sidesteps the depth of their relationship to leave you hanging until the end — and so whatever the filmmaker is trying to say is left hanging, too. Maybe something about the confusing lines of power, or maybe that writers are really awful people?
Bartlett lets the first half drag way too long, establishing over and over the characters' plight, getting lost in the forest mist that Sweet keeps emerging from, bizarrely and with no subtlety. The second half is agonizing — all arguments and tears. Taken together, this movie might be less fun than taking the SATs.
It’s notable that Bartlett's airless script, which landed among the top unproduced screenplays in 2016, predates #MeToo and feels wholly out of its time in 2024. Do we really need a spiteful Lolita threatening to lob grenades into her rivals' lives and careers? Bartlett seems to have lots to say at the beginning about art and passion, but ends with nothing other than seemingly not to believe women. That couldn't have been her intention.
“Miller's Girl,” a Lionsgate release that hits theaters Friday, is rated R for “sexual content, language throughout, some teen smoking and drinking.” Running time: 93 minutes. One star out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits