The Movie Waffler New Release Review - MILLER’S GIRL | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - MILLER’S GIRL

Miller's Girl review
A teacher's interest in a gifted pupil threatens to cross professional and ethical lines.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Jade Halley Bartlett

Starring: Jenna Ortega, Martin Freeman, Dagmara Domińczyk, Bashir Salahuddin, Gideon Adlon

Miller's Girl poster

Literary Review's infamous bad Sex in Fiction Award might want to extend its reach to take in movies. There's no onscreen sex in writer/director Jade Halley Bartlett's entertainingly awful Miller's Girl, but there sure is a lot of bad sex written within the film and relayed to the audience through a voiceover that tries to convince us we're listening to the words of a literary ingénue.

"Heartbreak is a slow motion car crash set to Mozart," is but one of the movie's voiceover clangers as uttered by its young anti-heroine, Jenna Ortega's Cairo Sweet. It's an apt description for the film itself, which really is the sort of car crash that actively encourages the viewer to slow down and take in its awfulness. It's the best sort of bad movie, one that has unshakeable confidence in itself.

Miller's Girl review

The drama takes place over a hot Tennessee early summer. This allows for an evocation of America's Southern Gothic tradition, but perhaps more importantly it provides an excuse for its female cast to wear very revealing outfits (so much for the male gaze). Cairo is an emo teen's fever dream of an ideal protagonist. She lives alone in a crumbling gothic mansion filled with rotary phones, musty books and birds in cages, in case you didn't get the metaphor, and she dresses like the mistress of an 18th century highwayman.

On the advice of her always horny and hungry best friend Winnie (Gideon Adlon), Cairo switches to a creative writing class taught by Jonathan Miller (not that one). Played by Martin Freeman with an unconvincing American accent, Jonathan is the classic cliché of the failed writer who teaches because he can't write. Disillusioned by a constant parade of disinterested pupils, Jonathan is invigorated by Cairo's passion for writing. He's impressed that she reads Henry Miller, and he's flattered to discover she has read the one book he managed to get published himself, passages of which she's even memorised.

Determined to nourish Cairo's talent, Jonathan gives her a special assignment: to write a short story in the style of her favourite author. She chooses Henry Miller.

Miller's Girl review

No tutor with any integrity would encourage a student to write a piece of fan fiction, but Miller's Girl is essentially a work of fan fiction in its own right. Not of any one particular author, but to the entire American Southern tradition of sweaty melodrama. Cairo is one of those classic young heroines who lives on the outskirts of town and finds comfort in the sort of things that make others uncomfortable. When asked if she doesn't get scared walking through the woods to school on her own, she replies "I'm the scariest thing in there." Jonathan's wife, Beatrice (Dagmara Dominczyk), is as clichéd a Southern Gothic stereotype as you could imagine, constantly drunk and permanently clad in a negligee. Campy and vampy, Dominczyk's performance channels Liz Taylor as Beatrice constantly berates, mocks and emasculates Jonathan. "I married a writer, and now I'm married to a teacher," she cruelly scolds.

No wonder then that Jonathan falls for the first female figure that doesn't view him as mediocre. Spending more time outside school with Cairo, Jonathan comes close to crossing professional and ethical lines. When Cairo hands in her essay, a smutty story about a teacher named Mr. Murphy seducing his favourite student, it all threatens to go a bit Poison Ivy.

The subsequent attempt to turn Miller's Girl into the sort of erotic thriller Michael Douglas might once have headlined is derailed by the confusing filmmaking. Bartlett's style is so over the top that it's difficult to tell if what we're seeing is real or a fantasy of the protagonists' imagining. When Jonathan visits Cairo's home to return her misplaced cellphone, we see them kiss on a rainy porch, but it's so laughably stylised that we can't tell if it's to be taken at face value. Cairo certainly claims it occurred when she vindictively reports Jonathan to his vice principal. Jonathan denies Cairo's story. We don’t know who to believe because we're unsure if the kiss we saw actually happened. This makes for a redundant final act as we're unable to side with either character. Has a young girl been taken advantage of by a middle-aged man, or has the latter been manipulated and framed by the former? Who knows?

Miller's Girl review

A major issue with Miller's Girl is that it can't decide on its primary audience. Everything involving Cairo and Winnie seems aimed at the Young Adult market, while everything with Jonathan and his wife plays like it was made for a middle-aged viewer. The tone is similarly all over the place. While Cairo, Jonathan and Beatrice are written and performed as the players of an erotic thriller, Winnie and Jonathan's fellow teacher and confidant Boris (Bashir Salahuddin) seem to have wandered in from a raucous comedy. Boris's unsubtle encouragement of Winnie's crush bears no relation to the reality of teacher-pupil relations in 2024, and is closer to a subplot from a 1980s sex comedy about horny camp counsellors. With her catchphrase of "It's time for chicky and biccies," you could imagine Winnie being played by Brittany Murphy 25 years earlier.

Miller's Girl is a mess, but you simply can't look away. If it had been made in a past decade you might ask what people were smoking at the time, but such campy delights are all too rare today and should be savoured when they find their way onto our screens. I grade this one H for Hilarious.

Miller's Girl is on UK/ROI VOD from February 19th.

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