Jenna Ortega and Martin Freeman cannot save Jade Halley Barlett’s romantic thriller Miller’s Girl from falling victim to its excessive ambition.
Miller’s Girl has all the ingredients to be a film that should easily secure a spot on any film festival line-up or “must-see movies of 2024” list. It’s Jenna Ortega’s first drama following the success of her debut as Wednesday Adams in Netflix’s Wednesday. Martin Freeman is a permanent fixture on the list of actors that are known to bait audiences to see their latest work. The plot centers around their intense, yet forbidden attraction to one another giving audiences plenty of tension and danger to sink their teeth into. And yet, the film falls victim to the same ailments as its main character’s failed novel: overreaching without ambition.
The film centers around Cairo Sweet (Jenna Ortega), a rich albeit lonely high school senior seething with talent. She is a gifted writer, at the top of her class academically but lives alone in her parents’ mansion (for some reason never expanded upon, in a graveyard) while her parents travel the world seemingly not caring what their 18-year-old daughter is doing. Cairo desires a life full of meaning and is desperate to get out of her small hometown in Tennessee. She finds an escape from her boredom in the confines of her creative writing teacher’s classroom, Jonathan Miller (Martin Freeman).
Cairo worships Mr. Miller for his status as a published writer. They quickly develop a bond as Jonathan recognizes her talent as well as her admiration for his own work. As the two grow close, the lines in their relationship begin to blur, eventually leading to their bond being irrecoverably changed.
When Jonathan asks Cairo to complete the midterm assignment early, writing a short story in the voice of a writer she admires, Cairo chooses a writer who has been banned from public schools for his books being deemed too pornographic. In the writing assignment, Cairo develops an erotic story of a teacher-student affair intended to be about what she believes the climax of her and Jonathan’s relationship would result in.
Miller’s Girl exists in two acts: the before and after of Cairo’s writing assignment. Act one carefully masters the dynamic between Cairo and Jonathan as it progresses from admiration of one another to kinship and finally to something that resembles a romantic relationship. This first half of the film is an intriguing depiction of the magnetic pull these two characters have to one another.
Cairo is longing for a call to arms, feeling a void that is accentuated by her Yale application asking the question, “What is your greatest achievement?”. Jonathan is resigned to a life of mediocrity after the failure of his first novel resulting in him turning to teaching while he watches his wife’s writing career bloom in front of him. The two “see” one another for their potential, and the danger yet the attractiveness of their bond is wildly enticing.
However, by the second act of the film – the fallout from Cairo’s short story – the movie falls flat in charm, appeal and story development. Miller’s Girl desires to implore audiences to ask whose side they believe and show that there are no perfect victims nor completely evil villains; however, I find moral issues with trying to use this film as Cairo’s villain origin story.
Since Cairo feels rejected by Jonathan because he wouldn’t accept her assignment and tells her she is crazy for reading into their relationship in an inappropriate manner (for the record, he 100% plays a large part in her romantic ideation of their relationship), is the audience supposed to question the integrity of the 18-year-old girl who is experiencing heartbreak for the first time in her life? Is the audience supposed to perceive her as evil for what she does next?
The film tries to veil Cairo as an adult because she is ripely 18 years old, and plays with the notion of what an adult is in a way that I find to be unsuccessful. It doesn’t matter that Cairo is of the legal age of an adult, that does not make it okay for her teacher to chain-smoke cigarettes and drink wine with her. Cairo is a young girl who wants to be an adult, but Jonathan is an adult. During the first act, the film paints Cairo and Jonathan as two lost people who understand each other; this, however, does not make them equals. Cairo even says to Jonathan, “You can’t blur the lines than get mad when I don’t see the boundaries”.
At one point in act two, Beatrice (Dagmara Domińczyk), Jonathan’s wife, says that “teenage girls are dangerous,” which is what I believe the biggest issue with Miller’s Girl boils down to. It wants to say that teenage girls are not dumb and hold power in their words; however, the vehicle in which Bartlett tries to drive this sentiment is not developed well. This concept of who can truly hold power within relationships is the heartbeat of the film, but the second act, which is meant to develop it, falls flat, as it rushes past the answer to its own posed question.
Jonathan’s novel was panned by critics with the defining criticism being that his work was “overreaching without ambition”. Unfortunately, the film suffers a similar fate. With a well-developed first act, rich with character development and compelling questions of identity, the second act of the movie rushes to a conclusion that doesn’t make it feel complete. The film was in a hurry to end without taking any of the time to wrap up the story that it spent the first half of its duration so eloquently crafting. The dialogue becomes repetitive and while the vocabulary of each character is impressive, by the second half it feels as if each character is reading from a thesaurus.
It’s unfortunate to see a film with such a promising concept and content lose itself the way that Miller’s Girl does throughout its duration. Jenna Ortega and Martin Freeman give beautiful performances, but not even their compelling portrayal of these characters can save the film from abandoning its sense of care when deciding the fate of their characters.
Miller’s Girl was released in theaters on January 26, 2024.