Where have all the taboo romances gone? Admittedly, the trailer for Jade Halley Bartlett’s Miller’s Girl didn’t inspire much hope for their return, particularly since the Martin Freeman–Jenna Ortega pairing doesn’t exactly scream “steamy” — it doesn’t scream much of anything, really. Still, the possibility of some melodramatic, TV-movie fun remained, a possibility strengthened by the film’s seemingly self-aware literary pretensions. But in actuality, these manifest mostly in book title puns, characters reading entire passages out loud, and groan-inducing wordplay that is, in proper Whedonian fashion, immediately called out as such.
The setup for this literature-adjacent melodrama is the stuff of Wattpad fiction: the newly-adult Cairo Sweet (Jenna Ortega) takes an English class at her high school taught by Martin Freeman’s Jonathan Miller, a failed writer who turned to teaching after his terribly-titled short story collection Apostrophes and Ampersands got mauled by the few critics who bothered with it. In spite of the beyond-her-years erudition and apparently sturdy taste in books — although few are likely buying that she thumbed her way through James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake as a teenager — Cairo seems to have taken a liking to Miller’s middling prose, flattering her insecure educator. She has her own aspirations of becoming a writer, and Miller suggests she write a short story in the style of one of her favorite authors as a midterm assignment.
Miller, for his part, is trapped in a atrophied marriage with Beatrice (Dagmara Domińczyk), a successful writer whose days consist of staring into the harsh glow of her laptop screen, drinking well before 4:00 PM, and yelling at her publisher during hours-long phone calls. The film contrasts this somewhat icy domesticity with the adulation Miller receives from his new pupil. Notably, Cairo is presented as having mostly pure intentions, and she’s not exactly a man-eating sex kitten. It’s actually her friend Winnie (Gideon Adlon) who first puts ideas in her head, encouraging her to experience something to draw inspiration from for her writing. In a plot thread that ends up going nowhere, Winnie herself talks openly about seducing their physics and gym teacher (and Miller’s best friend) Boris Fillmore (Bashir Salahuddin), although there is a sense that her sexual confidence is rooted in a juvenile proclivity for transgression rather than genuine sexual desire.
Of course, the idea Cairo comes up with is giving up her virginity to Miller — appropriately, she chooses to write her assignment in the smutty style of Henry Miller — and it’s not long before would-be sparks start flying. Ortega plays Cairo as confident, sometimes verging on cocky, but her girlish features and girl-with-a-tumblr-next-door charisma fail to convey the allure she’s supposed to possess and project, even as she spends most of the film dressed in short skirts and the occasional pair of thigh-high socks. At one point, she emerges from the woods she walks through on her way to school, enveloped by a thick fog and moving in slow motion as Miller and Fillmore look on. The timid Miller tries his best not to ogle his student as she approaches them, but it’s clear he can barely keep his eyes off her.
Describing scenes like the one above in writing doesn’t do justice to how tame they really are. In execution, there isn’t a hint of sensuality, not even a morsel of sexual tension between the two leads. Miller, for all his sexual frustration and feelings of inadequacy in his marriage to a woman who has not only eclipsed him professionally but also takes every opportunity to remind him of his shortcomings — she even uses his short story collection, which he dedicated to her, as a coaster — never comes across as desperate enough to seriously consider crossing that line with Cairo. Sure, his conduct is unprofessional — should teachers really be sharing cigarettes with students? — but any of the dangerous psychosexual mind games suggested by the synopsis never materialize.
As a matter of fact, barely anything does. Even the school ecosystem, an integral part of any film set in a high school, is hardly given any contours, with the few other students and faculty seen on screen permanently out of focus, lingering in the background, and always eager to scurry out of frame as soon as possible. The film briefly rubs the sleep from its eyes when Cairo hands in her assignment and the sultry story about a teacher-student hookup — complete with obvious stand-ins and explicit descriptions of their genitalia — prompts Miller to vigorously pleasure himself in his shed. But then it’s back to the bore.
Half the excitement of watching an illicit affair unfold is the knowledge that there will be disastrous consequences somewhere down the line as at least one of the parties involved usually stands to lose a lot by succumbing to their passions. But the key word there is “passion,” and Miller’s Girl has none of it, nor does it have much to show for in the way of character psychology or at least some over-the-top acting fireworks. The film doesn’t even work as a CW-flavored background distraction. It’s not awful per se, since that would require it to have any kind of personality, but it is undeniably bland and extremely forgettable, something the May–December quasi-romance — a quick way to maximize pre-release controversy — can’t conceal.
DIRECTOR: Jade Halley Bartlett; CAST: Jenna Ortega, Martin Freeman, Gideon Adlon, Bashir Salahuddin; DISTRIBUTOR: Lionsgate; IN THEATERS: January 26; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 33 min.