All this week, join us for a delightfully unwell celebration of our Internet Boyfriends. They’re sweet, beautiful men we’ve never met, and we can’t wait to share the fully formed relationships we have with each of them.
“I’m just having trouble caring about a lot of things right now.”
That’s a common lament from teenagers who so desperately want to seem cool, the kind of people who aren’t fazed by their emotions. But it seems a little more urgent and worrisome when that sentence pops out of the mouth of Billy, the sensitive and troubled young man of Miss Stevens, a 2016 indie about a weekend trip to a drama competition featuring the most gifted high-school actors across California. Most of us who saw Miss Stevens had no idea who played Billy, but we all immediately picked up on this fresh-faced actor’s poise and soulfulness. Whoever this Timothée Chalamet kid was, he sure seemed like a star.
In the last five years, Chalamet has been seemingly everywhere, coming to the world’s attention thanks to 2017’s Call Me by Your Name, which earned him an Oscar nomination. Since then, he’s played Saoirse Ronan’s crush in Lady Bird, a drug addict in Beautiful Boy, a brooding Henry V in The King, a moony revolutionary in The French Dispatch and Paul Atreides in the new Dune. (He’s also somebody named Yule in Don’t Look Up, easily giving the best performance in that woeful film.) And along the way, he’s become an Internet Boyfriend, with half of the web fascinated/charmed by him, while the other half thinks he’s overexposed and overrated. (Put it this way: You know you’ve captured the zeitgeist when there’s a nasty rumor going around that you gave half of New York University chlamydia.)
I’m very much pro-Chalamet. Sometimes he tends toward the mopey, but in his best work, he’s a strikingly present actor, imbuing his characters with deep feeling and quiet intensity. His surface is often placid, but we can pick up on the torment underneath. And if you’re only familiar with the films he’s done during his Internet Boyfriend era, you really should seek out Miss Stevens. Available on Hulu and elsewhere, this low-budget indie made very little money, but beyond being really touching, Miss Stevens allows you a chance to see Chalamet before he was a celebrity sensation. He was only 20 when the film premiered at South by Southwest, and he looks even younger. And yet, the film is full of hints of the Chalamet to come — not to mention a nice reminder of why people got so excited about him in the first place.
The directorial debut of Julia Hart — who co-wrote the script with her husband, producer Jordan Horowitz — Miss Stevens tells the story of Rachel (Lily Rabe), who’s pushing 30 and working as a high-school English teacher. Rachel is unhappy: Her personal life seems nonexistent, and there are indications that she pursued acting when she was younger, a dream that didn’t work out. The bulk of the film involves her chaperoning three of her students — try-hard Margot (Lili Reinhart), out-and-proud Sam (Anthony Quintal) and Chalamet’s Billy — for this weekend acting showcase. Miss Stevens is largely about Rachel coming to terms with her thus-far-disappointing life, and while Rabe is quite good in the film, it’s Chalamet who gives the story its jolt.
It helped at the time, of course, that he was largely an unknown quantity. He’d been in Interstellar and on Homeland, but when he played Billy, most viewers didn’t associate the young actor with any previous roles. And so, without warning we’re introduced to this quiet, somewhat on-edge teenager who — as Rachel is informed by the principal — takes medication for what’s only described as a behavioral disorder. That information comes out early in Miss Stevens, shortly after Billy tells her that he’s having trouble caring, which might explain why he keeps putting off his retest for The Great Gatsby he needs to take so he doesn’t fail the class. Rachel knows he’s bright and inquisitive, but there’s a storminess to him — a tendency to be withdrawn and then occasionally snarl — that makes her realize she’s going to need to keep a close eye on him this weekend. As much of a mess as she feels, she suspects he may be even worse.
At the competition, Rachel meets a married teacher (Rob Huebel), who informs her that all straight high-school boys have a crush on their hot English teacher. She doesn’t buy it — how can that many English teachers across America be attractive? — but the comment opens the door for an undercurrent coursing through Miss Stevens. Rachel likes Sam and tolerates the snooty, striving Margot, but she has a strong rapport with Billy, who’s a good listener and talks to her in a more thoughtful, mature manner than her other students. Initially, she pushes back against the informality he tries to impose — for instance, he calls her Rachel instead of Miss Stevens — but as the weekend begins to stir up her own feelings of inadequacy (as well as grief about the recent death of her mother), she finds herself opening up to this teenager. It’s nothing as scandalous as a love affair, but they share a bond — which prompts him to declare to Rachel that he knows he could make her happy.
In a different film, this turn of events might be fodder for a provocative or tawdry examination of an inappropriate romantic relationship. Instead, Miss Stevens sidesteps all that to go into a sadder, minor-key mode, illustrating how both Rachel and Billy seem alienated from the world around them. But unlike the stuck Rachel, Billy might have a bright future ahead of him. Maybe he’s a little too intense and forward — maybe his medication makes him feel zombified, which is why he’s impulsively stopped taking it — but when we see him near the end of Miss Stevens deliver a monologue from Death of a Salesman, we recognize he’s got the goods as an actor, a realization that leaves Rachel with mixed emotions. She’s proud of him, but as she sits in the audience, watching this teenager come to life as he embodies the bitter, impassioned Biff, she witnesses her own once-promising acting career die all over again. She was Billy’s age not that long ago, and maybe she was once this talented, but not anymore.
Since Call Me by Your Name, Chalamet has become an avatar for sadboys with flawless complexions and pensive eyes. His prettiness, matched by his small frame, only accentuates his characters’ vulnerability, the sense that they’re too fragile for this cruel, cruel existence. Whether he’s trying to save the universe in Dune or carefully courting Rachel in Miss Stevens, he seems unequal to the task, and yet, there’s something steely within him that always catches us off guard. Where others around him are cynical or mean-spirited, a Chalamet protagonist often has a purity to him. What’s funny about Billy’s comment to Rachel that he’s having trouble caring about things is that it’s clearly a lie — both for Billy and for Chalamet’s characters in general. They care deeply all the time — they can’t shut off that part of themselves.
Not that much older than Billy when he shot Miss Stevens, Chalamet doesn’t sport the long, floppy hair we’ve become accustomed to from him. His shorter ‘do makes him look younger, less assured. And yet, there’s a grownup quality to the performance, which we’d soon see again and again from him. Billy isn’t a precocious mini-adult but, rather, a young man finding himself, adolescent emotions butting up against a composure beyond his years. If it’s true that most of Chalamet’s movies are coming-of-age stories, Miss Stevens was the first time he demonstrated how nuanced his take on the genre could be. Convinced that he and Rachel are meant to be together, struggling with brain chemistry that negatively affects him — as he tells her at one point, his choices are feeling numb (on medication) or sad (not on medication) — Billy isn’t some glorified, clichéd version of the brilliant-but-troubled young genius. Quite the contrary, Chalamet just plays him as a sweet, slightly fucked-up kid. He’s given us so many of them in the last several years.
Ultimately, Miss Stevens is about Rachel, and so the film’s final moments revolve around her. But it’s telling that what prompts her to rethink her life is this moody teenager nursing a crush who might have the potential to be an amazing actor. Rachel’s a little awed by him, wondering how someone so young could be so self-possessed. For all of us who didn’t know who Chalamet was back then, it was easy to share Rachel’s sentiment. Chalamet never overdoes Billy’s mental-health struggles, simply letting his anxiety be another color in the character’s emotional palette. But even at this early stage of his career, he was more vibrant (and dreamy) than other pinups — like Billy, he seemed to be the real deal.
As Miss Stevens ends, we’re not sure what’s going to become of Billy. Chalamet, on the other hand, was well on his way to great things.