ARTS + ENTERTAINMENT

KSL Movie Show review: ‘Miller’s Girl’ is a literary surprise

Jan 25, 2024, 1:35 PM | Updated: Feb 2, 2024, 10:40 am

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SALT LAKE CITY — There’s no question that “Miller’s Girl” wants to splash around in troubling waters. But just before it hits the deep end, it whiplashes around and heads back for a rocky shore.

Sorry for the melodramatic metaphor, but I got caught up in the intense literary nature of this surprising film. Surprisingly, because of the richness of the powerful words expressed, but ultimately undermined by its cruel determinations.

Cairo A. Sweet is played by Jenna Ortega, and by the way, what a cool name. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that this is set in modern-day rural Tennessee and she lives in a locally revered old mansion, sort of like Scarlet O’Hara at the Tara plantation.

Who is Cairo Sweet?

She’s a gifted, well-read student who is about to confront a writer in his own right, but now a high school English teacher, Jonathan Miller (Martin Freeman). When he hands her the suggested reading material for his class on the first day, she admits that she’s already read all 12 of the books and much more.

She’s even read Miller’s own book, which he’s much flattered by, although it appears she’s the only one who has ever checked it out. Ouch.

Her dream is to get far away from this dusty town, attend Yale, and become a writer herself. He sees her potential and spends extra time after school, guiding her in attaining her goals.

But when he gives her a writing assignment, to mimic an acclaimed author’s literary style, she comes up with a smoking hot story about a passionate couple in the style of Henry Miller, a writer known for deep sexual tension. Then teacher Jon realizes that this has crossed the line and is madly inappropriate, even though admittedly he knows he has danced too near the flame.

I can see how this literary Lolita would be frowned upon in today’s world and even before. After all, a high school girl flirting with a much older teacher is likely most men’s secret fantasy. She the beguiler. He the helpless fawn. It’s old-school ridiculous.

Nowhere good for the characters to go

And I believe with that in mind, the filmmaker had a tough decision to make. Surely, you can’t let them become intimate, but if you don’t, what direction do you take. By the way, he’s married to Beatrice (Dagmara Domińczyk) who is also a writer or businesswoman (not clear to me) who is straining to stay married to Jonathan because he’s kind of a wimp.

Jon also has a best friend and high school coach pal (Bashir Salahuddin) who tries to warn him of the dangers he’s walking into, all the while, he’s playfully flirting with Cairo’s best friend Winnie (Gideon Adlon), but insists he knows where the line is drawn.

Ultimately, it’s a bit unclear what the message is here, but it’s abundantly clear that Jenna Ortega is a rising star with that “it” factor and a charisma that leaps off the screen. She’s not just a great “Wednesday,” but a great young actress with a terrific future ahead of her. Even in this uneven scenario, she shines brightly.

MILLER’S GIRL (B-) Rated R for language throughout, some teen smoking/drinking and sexual content. Starring Jenna Ortega, Martin Freeman, Dagmara Domińczyk, Bashir Salahuddin and Gideon Adlon. Written and directed by Jade Halley Bartlett in her directorial debut. Filmed in. Cartersville, Georgia. Running time: 93 minutes.

Steve Salles is the co-host of the KSL Movie Show. Follow the show on Facebook. Join the KSL Movie Show Club for exclusive perks by texting MOVIE to 57500.

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KSL Movie Show review: ‘Miller’s Girl’ is a literary surprise