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Upon first glance, Miller’s Girl is a romantic thriller set in a dark academia world that seems entrancing. And in moments, it is. Starring Jenna Ortega as Cairo, a highly intelligent 18-year-old high school student, and Martin Freeman as Mr. Miller, her English teacher, Jade Halley Bartlett’s directorial debut is meant to be an examination of power dynamics through the dangerous relationship between this pupil and educator. However, because the film tries so hard to be ambiguous and complex, it doesn’t exactly complete the assignment at hand. If anything, it just creates more questions.
Release Date: January 26, 2023
Directed By: Jade Halley Bartlett
Written By: Jade Halley Bartlett
Starring: Jenna Ortega, Martin Freeman, Bashir Salahuddin, Gideon Aldon and Dagmara Dominczyk
Rating: R for sexual content, language throughout, some teen smoking and drinking
Runtime: 93 minutes
Miller’s Girl follows Ortega’s Cairo as she develops a relationship with Mr. Miller while writing her midterm paper. For the project – which requires her to mirror the style of an author she admires – she pens an erotic short story about a young girl having an affair with a teacher, and it becomes abundantly clear that she’s referring to herself and Mr. Miller.
From there, things get complicated, and both parties end up dealing with the conflicts of the paper and their romantic feelings for one another. However, Cairo also has ulterior motives, because there is the sense that she’s trying to play Mr. Miller the whole time.
Filled with gorgeous gem-toned imagery and powerful performances from Jenna Ortega and Martin Freeman, Miller’s Girl has the potential to address ideas of power imbalance, what creates a villain, and the complexities of controversial relationships. However, as it tries to address all these ideas at once, things get muddled, and everything going for this film can’t save it from its gross storyline.
Miller’s Girl feels like entering Jenna Ortega’s perfectly painted dark academia world.
Much like the project that made Jenna Ortega a household name, the Netflix series Wednesday, Miller’s Girl has a distinct aesthetic that is gothic and gorgeous. However, rather than things being monochromatic, this movie uses dark gem tones to create Cairo’s world of dark academia.
Notably, the cinematography by Daniel Brothers elevats the small town Cairo lives in, and it is shot in a way that makes you feel as though you are living in these fantastical dark academic worlds of books like The Secret History and If We Were Villains.
When you mesh the oak wood colors of the school and the emerald greens of Cairo’s home with her black and white style, you get this perfectly painted gothic portrait of Jenna Ortega’s character’s world.
Throughout the film, we see Cairo go from wearing preppy light-colored outfits – like simple white shorts and a pin-striped button-down – to wearing dark blacks and leather. The evolution of her style helps us process the transformation she’s going through as she writes this story and gives it to Mr. Miller.
Lauren Bott’s costume design is immaculate in this sense. She dresses Jenna Ortega to the nines and helps us understand her character and the transformation she’s going through.
Ortega plays in this brilliantly decorated world of dark academia as Cairo, and she gives a subtle yet haunting performance of a young woman who transforms from an innocent child into a vengeful woman.
Miller’s Girl’s style doesn’t cover up its icky premise.
Despite this stunning gothic portrait of a world and Jade Halley Bartlett’s script full of dramatic prose, the premise behind Miller’s Girl is something that is hard to get behind.
Considering this is a romantic thriller, obviously a relationship between a teacher and student is made out to be a harmful and controversial one. However, it is difficult to see past how dangerous a relationship like this can be and the complex and gross power dynamics at play and see the greater goal behind the film.
Creating a story based around a relationship steeped in unbalanced power and a major age difference makes for an uphill battle when it comes to winning an audience over, even when both characters in the film are intentionally unlikeable.
Even though Martin Freeman’s Mr. Miller acts like he’s being played in this whole situation, he should have said no to Cairo’s advances. On the flip side, Cairo is a highly intelligent kid, and you’d think she would see the consequences of her actions coming. However, when Mr. Miller condemns her story, she turns villainous. Overall, both characters are naive to the situation around them when it’s suggested that they’re smart enough to know better.
Their lapses in judgment and logic are why it’s difficult to see the greater point in their relationship in Miller’s Girl. It’s not a satisfying film to watch, as the deeper meaning attempting to be achieved through this icky plot is only that: an attempt. It’s not necessarily successful.
Miller’s Girl tries really hard to say something, but it gets too caught up in trying to be complicated.
Cairo makes a point that she wants to “experience something she didn’t understand,” and it’s hard to tell if she ever comes to understand it. Like the high school girl at the center of the story who is trying to write about a subject she doesn’t know about, this film does the same thing. Miller’s Girl works very hard to be ambiguous and blunt at the same time, which only elicits questions rather than answers.
Is this film about misguided and untapped potential? Is it about the imbalances of power? Is it about Cairo finding power in this messed-up situation?
If the film tried to answer one of these questions through the relationship between Cairo and Mr. Miller, it likely would work, and when it really hones in on one point, you can recognize its potential.
When Mr. Miller’s complacency in this situation is bluntly addressed, and we see Cairo and his wife confront him about it and his career, for example, that is thrilling. However, when you add in the leading character’s motivation to try and start this relationship with her confusingly mixed feelings about Mr. Miller, it’s hard to really dig into any specific points trying to be made without getting confused.
To make a plot like this work and send a message, the script needed to be a pointed attack, but Miller’s Girl is unfocused in its actions and motive, so it’s hard to understand the goal of the main character’s mission (as well as the movie on the whole).
Take the scene where Mr. Miller returns Cairo’s phone to her house as proof. After flirting for a while, this moment seems to be when they act on their feelings and kiss. Conversely, it later becomes unclear if this actually happened or if it was all in Cairo’s story. The ambiguity creates chaotic confusion rather than clarity about the two’s feelings, making it hard to understand why either of them are in this relationship in the first place.
The blurred lines between reality and fiction feel intentional, and it seems like they’re trying to point out a greater purpose when it comes to the inevitable consequences of relationships like these. But this is guesswork; the point of all this is hard to parse out, which makes attempting to deal with this uncomfortable relationship difficult.
Maybe the ambiguity is the point, and maybe Miller’s Girl is supposed to leave viewers with more questions than answers. Overall though, while this film is gorgeous on the surface and haunting on first thought, when you think more about it, it feels like a confusing trip through this character’s twisted mind that leaves the uncomfortable feelings lingering.