‘Miller’s Girl’ Review: Jenna Ortega Is Razor-Sharp in Riveting Erotic Thriller
The former Scream star takes this movie to school.
THE BIG PICTURE
- Jenna Ortega and Martin Freeman deliver fantastic performances in Miller’s Girl, supported by a stellar cast.
- Miller’s Girl is a remarkable filmmaking debut for writer, director, and producer Jade Halley Bartlett.
- The film is visually stunning and well-directed, with sharp and memorable dialogue, but its ending may leave some viewers unsatisfied.
This review is based on a screening at the Palm Springs Film Festival.
Erotic thrillers, I must admit, are not my favorite genre. It’s not that I have any kind of moral aversion to the idea of an uncomfortable, sexually charged thrill ride; it’s just that I can’t help but feel it’s a genre that has been lacking in innovation over the years. That and maybe Knock Knock and Fifty Shades of Grey forever spoiled my desire to watch films in this genre, but I digress. Does Miller’s Girl do anything to inject incredible new life into these types of stories? I don’t necessarily think so, and yet, the film executes its simple premise in such a way that it is riveting.
The feature debut for writer, director, and producer Jade Halley Bartlett, Miller’s Girl depicts how quickly a seemingly harmless friendship between a teacher and a student can spiral out of control into something much more severe. Jonathan Miller (Martin Freeman) claims he’s living a happy and carefree life as a high school literature teacher. Still, it’s also painfully apparent that he resents his failed career as an erotic novelist. Ever the intellectual, Miller sees his whole worldview challenged when he gets a new student in his class – a brilliant young writer named Cairo Sweet (Jenna Ortega). The two form an instant connection, but their bond grows from an innocent teacher-student relationship into one that’s much more inappropriate for a school setting. The only question is, are these newfound allegations against Jonathan Miller true, or are they being manufactured by Cairo Sweet?
Jenna Ortega and Martin Freeman Are Fantastic in ‘Miller’s Girl’
If you’re still anxiously awaiting Wednesday Season 2, then Miller’s Girl may scratch that itch, as Cairo Sweet feels like a part that is tailor-made for Jenna Ortega. Just like her Addams Family alter-ego, Cairo is a certified genius who has a dark side to her loner personality. However, Cairo is undoubtedly a bit more on the morally ambiguous side. She’s not a character that you can necessarily root for as you do still feel the possibility that this affair with Mr. Miller is a fabrication. Cairo further showcases this through something that sets the character apart from Wednesday Addams. Specifically, it is the wide variety of emotions she displays and potentially fabricates, all of which are executed wonderfully by Ortega.
Martin Freeman, who also executively produced Miller’s Girl, has a similar task as Mr. Miller. He essentially needs to present his case to the audience through his side of the story, but he’s fighting an uphill battle. As a high school teacher, he has a responsibility to prevent inappropriate relationships with students. It would be easy to present a character like Miller as an odious pervert, and you could certainly make the argument that he is. Still, Freeman’s charismatic and versatile performance as the embattled teacher injects a fascinating level of humanity into the fleshed-out character.
Jenna Ortega and Martin Freeman are stupendous in the lead roles, but some of Miller’s Girl‘s best and most surprising moments come from the film’s small-yet-stellar supporting cast. First is Bashir Salahuddin as Coach Fillmore, who is Miller’s best friend in the film as the source of the film’s best moments of levity. The same can also be said for Gideon Adlon as Cairo’s best friend Winnie, who almost gets a bit obnoxious, but quickly turns into an endearing and necessary part of the film. Neither Fillmore nor Winnie are presented as throwaway comic relief characters, and they each serve as reminders of the more tame and relatable people that Miller and Cairo could be. Their vital purpose in the film’s story becomes even more clear once they begin reacting to the two main characters’ scandal. Also worth mentioning is Succession alum Dagmara Dominczyk, who clearly enjoys chewing up the scenery as Miller’s alcoholic, workaholic wife.
‘Miller’s Girl’ Is a Remarkable Debut for Jade Halley Bartlett
With a cast with such huge star power as this, even experienced filmmakers would have difficulty managing all these pieces into coherent pieces of cinema. Though Miller’s Girl is Jade Halley Bartlett’s first-ever feature film, her writing and direction are that of a seasoned pro. Miller’s Girl is visually stunning thanks to another relative newcomer, cinematographer Daniel Brothers. Combine that with Bartlett’s willingness for long uncut takes to just let the actors act and you have a very well-directed film. The only visual elements that didn’t work were moments when texts from a character’s phone would pop up on screen, as these just felt like an unnecessary break in immersion.
It’s also a remarkably well-written movie, especially in the dialogue department. While attending the Q&A session at the film’s world premiere at Palm Springs International Film Fest 2024, Jade Halley Bartlett mentioned that Miller’s Girl was initially conceived as a stage play. That certainly shows in the final product, not in the sense that it’s “too wordy”, but because the dialogue is memorable, quick, and sharp. Despite being an erotic thriller at its core, Miller’s Girl is surprisingly very funny for a good chunk of it’s runtime, and much of that is due to the great moments of levity spread throughout the film’s first half.
The lighthearted first half of Miller’s Girl was a present surprise, but the second more serious half wasn’t quite as compelling comparatively. It’s not bad by any stretch, with several standout scenes seeing Miller confronting Cairo on her paper and each of their interviews with the vice-principal. However, just when it looks like the film is entering a grand finale where we get to see how this event affected these characters, Miller’s Girl just sort of…ends. The tension only seemed to just be entering a riveting third act. Instead, we are met with an abrupt and rushed ending. I am all for an ambiguous conclusion that lets the audience decide what happens next, but this particular conclusion left me feeling a bit unsatisfied.
The pitfalls of Miller’s Girl are comparatively minor blemishes in an otherwise remarkable accomplishment for promising newcomer Jade Halley Bennett, as well as the rest of Miller’s Girl‘s cast and crew. Wonderfully acted, visually appealing, and engagingly written, Miller’s Girl is a riveting erotic thriller worthy of a rewatch. Of all the directorial debuts I had the pleasure of seeing at PSIFF 2024, Jade Halley Bennett’s rock-solid first feature film is certainly among the best.