It’s been a long time since we’ve had a worthy entry in the Completely Bonkers Cinematic Canon, which makes Jade Halley Bartlett’s “Miller’s Girl” a real treat. The most important quality that a Completely Bonkers film must have is a lack of self-awareness — first and foremost, it cannot wink or nudge at the audience in order to say, “Hey, see what I’m doing here?” It must take itself utterly seriously and that is what “Miller’s Girl” does so well, despite being completely divorced from any kind of recognizable reality.
The Miller’s girl in question is Cairo Sweet, played by Jenna Ortega in a riff on her “Wednesday” character (she delivers her lines in a deadpan staccato). She lives in an antebellum mansion in rural Tennessee surrounded by books — many of them kept in antique birdcages for some reason — and no parents. They’re powerful lawyers who constantly travel the globe for work. Cairo describes herself in voiceover as lonely and unremarkable; her only hope is that she will soon “meet a writer,” by which she means she will attend high school.
The title “Miller’s Girl” has a double meaning: Cairo’s English teacher, the aforementioned writer, is named Jonathan Miller (Martin Freeman). Also, Cairo's a fan of the notoriously banned novelist Henry Miller — she brings a copy of his erotic novel “Under the Roofs of Paris” to the first day of class, along with a copy of Jonathan’s unsuccessful collection of romantic short stories, “Apostrophes and Ampersands.”
In this public high school there appear to be all of two teachers — Mr. Miller and Coach Fillmore (Bashir Salahuddin) — and two students, Cairo and her flirty, petulant best friend Winnie (Gideon Adlon), whose catchphrase is “hungy.” The girls devise a plan to seduce their teachers, mostly because Winnie has got it bad for Coach Fillmore, and because Cairo needs a topic for her college admissions essay about her greatest accomplishment. Please do not attempt to follow the logic of this wacky screenplay.
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In addition to questionable character and story beats, Bartlett makes some odd directorial choices in terms of where she places the camera for certain significant moments. But “Miller’s Girl” has a delirious style in terms of its production design by Cheyenne Ford: Jonathan teaches in a dim room lined with Persian rugs; Cairo’s “ancestral home” is filled with taxidermy and tea cups and old rotary phones.
But its most notable aesthetic trait is its script (also written by Bartlett), which brings new meaning to the phrase “tortured prose.” There’s the portentously over-the-top narration, and then there’s the rapid-fire dialogue that makes “Gilmore Girls” look graceful. At one point, Jonathan calls Cairo a genius because she can capably use the word “vituperation” in a sentence. It’s essentially “Thesaurus: The Movie.”
The locus of sexuality in “Miller’s Girl” resides entirely in words — it’s how Jonathan and his wife, the workaholic Beatrice (Dagmara Dominczyk), seduce each other and it’s how his inappropriate flirtation with Cairo careens off the rails. He gives her a special midterm assignment to write in the style of her favorite author and she chooses Henry Miller, ultimately turning in an erotic essay so filthy it results in a messy climax that proves hard to clean up.
There’s a certain verve to Bartlett’s style, which is bold even if the plot turns make no sense and the character development is nil. Everyone seems to be having a fun time with the wild Southern Gothic tone, especially Dominczyk, in full Blanche DuBois mode as Beatrice, only ever clad in a bra and satin robe, constantly surrounded by stacks of paper and bottles of booze. Both Beatrice and Cairo take a real pleasure in verbally teasing, torturing and emasculating Jonathan, whom Cairo calls a “madman” even though he just seems horny and hen-pecked.
Some might see “Miller’s Girl” as a #MeToo story about relationships with uneven power dynamics, but it plays more like a throwback ’80s or ’90s erotic thriller such as “Poison Ivy” or “Wild Things” with a literary bent. The movie strikes that wild, so-bad-it’s-entertaining chord vigorously. I can’t recommend “Miller’s Girl” but I also can’t recommend it enough.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.