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'Miss Stevens' is a breakthrough for filmmaker Julia Hart and actress Lily Rabe at SXSW

The directing debut for screenwriter Julia Hart, “Miss Stevens” -- which is anchored by an emotionally detailed lead performance by Lily Rabe -- is about the moment you realize you are the grown-up in the room.

"Miss Stevens" premiered as part of the narrative competition at the South by Southwest Film Festival. Rabe plays Rachel Stevens, a high school English teacher who is somewhat adrift in her own life. Without anything better to do, she agrees to take three students (Timothee Chalamet, Lili Reinhart and Anthony Quintal) on a short trip to a drama competition. It becomes something of a journey of personal reconciliation for Stevens, who must also weather the crises big and small of her young charges.

Before launching herself as a screenwriter, Hart was herself a schoolteacher in New York City for eight years. Her first produced screenplay was “The Keeping Room,” a Civil War-era drama that first premiered at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival starring Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld and Muna Otaru and directed by Daniel Barber.

The scripts for “The Keeping Room” and “Miss Stevens” were initially making the rounds to potential talent and backers at about the same time. Hart now sees how even she, at the time, was somewhat overlooking the potential of “Miss Stevens.”

“It’s funny because it was always kind of the underdog script,” Hart said in an interview in Los Angeles just ahead of SXSW. “It was always a more quote-unquote traditional narrative indie film, but we continued to be surprised in the process of making it and getting it out into the world. It is a lot more special than we had given it credit for.

“Maybe it’s because I was a teacher, I felt the story of a teacher wasn’t as exciting or interesting as one about three women defending themselves against rogue soldiers during the Civil War.”

For a time, “Miss Stevens” was intended as a directorial vehicle for someone else, but the process of seeing “The Keeping Room” through production changed Hart's thinking.

“While I was watching someone else telling my story, I realized that I actually had the desire to tell my own stories,” Hart said, “which was something I definitely didn’t know before that happened. ... It just really made me want to direct the next script myself.”

Rabe is well known on the New York theater scene, earning a Tony nomination for "The Merchant of Venice," and has had recurring appearances on TV’s “American Horror Story,” on which she recently played serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Yet she has never before quite found a breakthrough film role.

Rabe attended Northwestern a few years behind Jordan Horowitz, the producer and co-writer of “Miss Stevens. (Hart and Horowitz are also married and have an infant son.) Horowitz initially sent Rabe the “Keeping Room” script and then followed that up later by showing her “Miss Stevens.”

“She just made so much sense to me, this character,” Rabe said. “I think that she’s the protagonist of the story, it’s her story, but you’re not being told how you’re supposed to feel about the woman. You’re just being invited into this situation and into that woman’s heart and brain and story. As opposed to making a statement about what kind of woman she is or what kind of woman it is best to be.

“You could say there’s mess there, but what else is there?” Rabe added. “I felt she was so fully drawn, without any kind of apologizing.”

The movie is dedicated to Rabe’s mother, the late actress Jill Clayburgh. It is noteworthy how “Miss Stevens,” in particular the title character and Rabe’s performance, sits directly in the lineage of some of Clayburgh’s best known roles in films, such “An Unmarried Woman.” Those were films about the very specific and contemporary struggles of women in their time, just as “Miss Stevens” has a lot to say about how women navigate the expectations and reality of the world today.

“In a lot of ways, the movie is about two things for me,” said Hart. “It’s about performance and the power of art to get you through the tough stuff, but it’s also about growing up and letting go.”

Hart acknowledged the importance of Rabe’s casting to the project -- “when this one came along,” Hart playfully said alongside Rabe during a Q&A after Saturday’s world premiere in Austin -- and how the script was then tailored for her.

“I look back at the original script and it wasn’t really about anything until Lily came on-board,” Hart said. “Then it became about something.”

Twitter: @IndieFocus

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