“Miller’s Girl” is disappointing post #MeToo

Martin Freeman and Jenna Ortega star in “Miller’s Girl.” The film follows the troubling relationship between the two leads. // Photo courtesy of IMDb

Editor’s note: This review contains spoilers for “Miller’s Girl.”

The trailer for “Miller’s Girl” promised something new: a reimagination of Hollywood’s favorite story of an older man and a younger girl finding love against the prejudiced and antiquated notions of a society that just doesn’t understand.

However, the movie not only failed to offer anything new to the genre, it served to reinforce harmful ideas that women use victimization as a tool to pull down men from positions of power.

“Miller’s Girl” follows the coming-of-age of Cairo Sweet (Jenna Ortega, “Scream”) as she takes a class with washed-up author turned high school teacher Jonathan Miller (Martin Freeman, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”).

In their first meeting, it is already established that Sweet is not like other girls: she has a mind. When her bubbly, girly friend Winnie Black (Gideon Adlon, “Blockers”) comes in to take Sweet out with her, she serves as a perfect foil — showing the audience that it is only natural that Miller would have an interest in someone as serious and different as Sweet.

With Sweet and Black out of the classroom, Miller starts to rifle through Sweet’s stuff. Looking through her books, he picks out a book she’s reading by Henry Miller, an author that is consistently referenced back to for his pornographic material throughout the movie. Without even being in the room, Sweet suddenly is seen as a sexual being. Miller seals the deal on this invasion by then rifling through Sweet’s journal and declaring that she truly has a talent. From here, submitted works turn into after-school meetings discussing her future and the raw talent Miller just has to shape with his own two hands.

Now, this is where the movie desperately tries to reframe the narrative and falls achingly short. Sweet is concurrently in the process of applying to colleges, including Yale, where she has to write an essay about her greatest accomplishment. Reflecting on her life, she finds that valedictorian just doesn’t seem to cut it — she needs something better. Sweet decides that making Miller fall in love with her, since Black points out he is so clearly already infatuated, will be her triumph.

This is a defining moment in the film. It flips the victim narrative on its head; it lets Sweet be the aggressor, lets her be the seducer for her own gain. She is not just prey for an older man looking for vulnerability and innocence; she is the predator. However, as quickly as the movie introduces this concept, it dismisses it.

Sweet’s plans for seduction — the dark energy the thriller so proudly displays in its trailer — dissipates under the eyes of Miller. Suddenly, she is fawning over him, going to poetry readings she knows he frequents to try to stage clandestine meetings and then waxes love-sick about it in her diary. Miller, for his part, does nothing to stop her. 

He encourages her, smokes with her and, in a damning moment, takes action on his desires. None of this is under Sweet’s direction. What starts as an empowering moment where she takes advantage of an older man’s predatory behavior quickly falls through to her being just a girl who needs validation.

At the climax of the film, where the tensions between Sweet and Miller come to a head, a fight breaks out in front of the very desk where it all began. Even as the movie physically places Sweet on higher ground (standing on a teacher’s pedestal) over Miller, her arguments all sound childish; she sounds like the hysterical girl, and Miller is the ever-reasonable adult.

When in a rage, Sweet reports Miller to the school administration, the moment is not treated as a reclamation of the narrative by Sweet. Instead, she is painted, once again, as hysterical and rageful, lashing out and hurting Miller because she cannot deal with the fact that he cannot be with her. 

The issue is escalated to the school board, and the situation is framed to seem like Sweet’s fantasies of Miller have led him to lose everything: his job, his best friend and his wife. However, Sweet never tells a single lie when she is shown reporting Miller. She is clear and level-headed; yes, she did see Mr.Miller outside of school, and yes, they were physical.

The scene outside the school board’s office where Sweet and Miller see each other for the first time in months should be redemptive, but it is cheapened. Miller is seen crumpled on the steps outside of what may very well be the death sentence of his career, and Sweet looks upon him, pretending to cry but then smiling down on him as if she were the executioner all along.

“Miller’s Girl” promised a story of reversal, allowing a Lolita-esque character to be out for blood for once rather than being bled dry. Instead, the story just tells us that young girls fall in love, and then cry wolf — hurting innocent men along the way. 

In a post #MeToo America, which has seen an increased rise in the sentiment of men having to “protect” themselves from false allegations while sexual violence against women continues to be a problem, is this really the story that Hollywood should be telling?