Cartersville resident Jade Halley Bartlett wrote a Southern Gothic stage play more than a decade ago while she was a struggling actress in New York City.
It was about student Cairo who seduces English teacher Jonathan Miller set in a high school in rural Tennessee. She eventually converted it to a screenplay for a potential movie.
Then the #MeToo movement came along and she rejiggered the film to make 18-year-old Cairo less the villain and amplify Jonathan’s complicity in the relationship. The result: a murky morality fable dubbed “Miller’s Girl,” led by Emmy-nominated rising star Jenna Ortega as the alluringly intellectually mature yet emotionally immature Cairo. The drama is now in local theaters.
Bartlett was fortunate to nab Ortega before the release of Ortega’s breakthrough hit “Wednesday” on Netflix. “Miller’s Girl” was shot in Cartersville in late summer and early fall of 2022.
“Jenna totally disarmed me,” said Bartlett in a Zoom call last week from her Cartersville home. “She said things to me about the character I had never vocalized. She understood Cairo in a way that I didn’t have to explain to her. She brought a lot of humanity to a character that is complicated to play.”
In the movie, Miller, played by Emmy-winning 52-year-old British actor Martin Freeman, is in a bit of a rut, a middle-aged teacher who had authored a book years earlier that got panned. The result: he avoided putting pen to paper ever again. Miller becomes quietly flattered by Cairo’s attention. (Yes, she voluntarily read his book!).
He convinces himself that he is simply helping a super bright student get into college. He invites her to a poetry reading to show her that Tennessee isn’t a complete backwater. They linger after class to talk literature. He gives her a special assignment to write an essay in the style of her favorite author.
Cairo chooses Henry Miller, who is known for sexually explicit short stories, and his alarm goes off when her story borders on pornographic. Despite his obvious internal desires, he rejects Cairo. She doesn’t take it well.
“Jonathan feels so powerless in his life,” Bartlett said. “He cannot accept the responsibility of the power he has in this dynamic. That actually makes him terrifying. He can’t see himself for what he is.”
The secondary characters are equally colorful. Jonathan’s wife Beatrice, for instance, has the busier, better paying job. “Women in films like this are often accessories to their husband,” she said. “I really wanted to upend that trope. She loves her husband. They have great sexual chemistry. What he does complicates her life. She is more disappointed in him than upset.”
And Jonathan’s best friend, a fellow teacher, also toys with the power dynamics with his students, including Cairo’s best friend. “They’re all morally and ethically gray, which is closer to life,” Bartlett said. “It feels like a heightened fairy tale. But the reality is they are not perfect villains or perfect victims. I consider this a romantic horror.”
Credit: Zac Popik/Lionsgate
Credit: Zac Popik/Lionsgate
Bartlett leaves the ending ambiguous for a reason. “This is a character study,” she said. “This is not ‘Poison Ivy.’ This is not ‘The Crush.’ I love those movies. But I just ask a lot of questions rather than decree one thing or another. I’m not trying to prescribe how someone feels about it.”
With a modest budget of $4 million, Bartlett saved money by shooting the interior of Cairo’s house in her own home, which she purchased in 2020 in the historic district of Cartersville.
She said she was charmed by her home’s 164-year-old oak floors, original windows “and a ghost that walks up the stairs sometimes.”
During the 19-day production shoot, she slept upstairs while allowing 60 people to tromp around her place during the day. “It was wild to wake up and go to work downstairs,” she said. “It felt like summer camp.”
She said her house came out better than it did before the shoot. And she kept some of the props as souvenirs. “I have hand-painted murals because of this movie!” she said.
IF YOU WATCH
“Miller’s Girl,” starring Jenna Ortega and Martin Freeman, available in local theaters
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution including TV, radio, film, comedy and all things in between. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years. He loves tennis, pop culture & seeing live events.