When Anomalisa was released at the end of 2015, it sparked several conversations about its use of stop-motion animation and unusual casting choices, but another discussion never took shape in a prominent way: Should the sex that took place between Michael, an author and figure of power, and Lisa, his fawning and socially inept admirer, be understood as rape?
While Anomalisa ultimately seems oblivious to that possibility, writer-director Julia Hart’s Miss Stevens provides a more direct confrontation of it through a comparable scenario. The titular high school English teacher (Lily Rabe) has just slept with Walter (Rob Huebel), another teacher, the night before; they’re both at a hotel, accompanying some students to a drama competition. The next night, when Miss Stevens knocks on his door, he’s less enthusiastic about having sex again, pointing to his ring finger and saying, “All I really want is to finish my drink, watch this $14 movie, and tomorrow I’m going home to get in bed with my wife.” It’s not that Walter previously lied, as he revealed to Miss Stevens that he was married, but that he deliberately played up his attraction to, and intentions with, the single teacher in order to get laid.
Hart presents this scenario as a complex order of operations that conjures numerous questions for the viewer. If the single teacher recognizes she was misled, is it now possible to void her previous consent? If so, would that mean taking possible criminal action or just that Walter is an asshole, but cannot be charged with a crime? Hart plants this confounding and imperative dilemma within a seemingly innocuous dramedy that perpetuates American indies’ 21st-century obsession with arrested development, as the 29-year-old teacher finds she’s no more, and perhaps even less, emotionally mature than several of her 18-year-old students. Yet Hart finds canny ways to communicate this short bridge, primarily through Margot (Lili Reinhardt) and Billy (Timothée Chalamet), two students whose contrasting personalities seem to form Miss Stevens’s own, thus allowing her to empathize with both.
Hart and co-writer Jordan Horowitz effectively focus on smaller exchanges. Early on, while packed into a car with her trio of students, Miss Stevens hits something on the road and launches into obscenities, prompting one student, Sam (Anthony Quintal), to observe that she curses a lot. She fires back, “We’re not at school,” to which Margot demurs, “But, like, we are.” The scene amuses for its play with logical certainty, but it also recalls the teacher’s opening lecture about school as an institution for learning, and that its information comes from a place of cultural stability and traditional values; after all, the students are reading The Great Gatsby in Miss Stevens’s English class.
Of course, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel contains suggestions of sexual assault that are never explicitly confirmed as such, and while Hart by no means sustains any form of interrogation about the contemporary status of rape, Hart does deftly integrate suggestions that definitions of acts, procedure, and people must be open to shifting along with the passage of time. If it’s Miss Stevens’s job to breed consciousness and a certain sensibility in her students, then Miss Stevens finds a comparable role for the filmmaker to provide the materials for discussion without directing the viewer toward a particular solution or easy answer. In that sense, Hart’s film is more progressive than Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s downtrodden apologia for male chauvinism, because it actually dares to engage the possibility of its rape scenario rather than more fashionably reveling in the sad-sackiness of depressed characters who can find little to live for.