Seven years ago today was the theatrical release of Miss Stevens, the directorial debut of the incomparable Julia Hart.
Julia Hart is an American filmmaker known for the complexity, depth, and heart that she brings to every genre (which, for her, spans from young adult musical romance to crime thriller). Raised by James Hart, a Hollywood screenwriter known for his literary adaptations such as Dracula, Frankenstein, and Hook, Julia was exposed to the world of film from a young age. But she was also raised with love and compassion for other people. At just sixteen, she co-founded the Peter Pan Birthday Club, a charity program which allows children to set up donations in lieu of birthday presents, inspired by her experience asking friends to donate to a local hospital one year for her birthday. Later, these two characteristics – her big heart and her passion for the screen –would come together to make some incredible films.
Miss Stevens (2016), Julia’s film debut, was described by FF2 contributor Jessica Perry as “a bold and original take on the classic coming of age story.” The film is a poignant drama that revolves around a high school teacher, played by Lily Rabe, who takes a group of troubled students (Timothée Chalamet, Lili Reinhart, and Anthony Quintal) on a weekend trip. Miss Stevens is beloved for its loveable and complex characters and their moving character arcs; in other words, its strength is in its characters. In a tribute to Julia, FF2 Contributor Nicole Ackman says, “Miss Stevens is a compelling portrait of a handful of characters from uptight and organized Margot to gifted but struggling Billy.”
Julia’s strong characters are testament both to her excellently realistic writing, and her sensitive and strong direction, which allows her actors to truly bring their characters to life. As Nicole Ackman puts it, “Both Chalamet and Rabe are great in Miss Stevens and Chalamet’s monologue that he performs at the competition is still one of the greatest scenes in his career.”
In her second feature film, Fast Color, Julia delved into the realm of science fiction. The story follows a young woman named Ruth, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, with extraordinary superhuman abilities who must confront her past while protecting her family. Fast Color is a fresh take on the science fiction genre because of its character-driven approach. Though Ruth’s supernatural powers are central to the plot, it is her experiences as a Black woman, her arc as a mother, and her relationship with her family (which holds generations of women with these same powers) that make the film riveting.
At the Athena Film Festival, I was lucky enough to attend a Q&A with Julia about Fast Color. In the Q&A, she spoke about her directorial approach. As I described: “[she] introduced the concept of ‘uncentering’ yourself as the director – in other words, removing yourself from your role as the sole decision-maker and voice of authority on set and opening up the floor for collaboration from the cast and the creative team.” Though Julia is not a Black woman herself, she was able to open up a space as a director in which Black women could tell the story authentically. Her ability to put the humans in the film, both the ones on screen and the actors playing them, above herself, explains why her characters are the most compelling part of her films, no matter the genre.
In 2020, Julia came out with Stargirl, based on the young adult novel of the same name by Jerry Spinelli. The film tells the story of a free-spirited teenager, played by Grace VanderWaal, who inspires change and brings joy to her high school, and especially one boy who she befriends, through her unapologetically unconventional behavior. Just last year, Julia made a sequel to Stargirl, called Hollywood Stargirl, which finds our lovably quirky protagonist chasing her dreams to become a musician in LA. With Stargirl, Julia was able to capture the essence of adolescence and celebrate individuality, once again demonstrating that her love for humanity is at the heart of her films.
That same year, Julia released a crime drama set in the 70s, I’m Your Woman. Starring Rachel Brosnahan, the film tells the story of a woman, Jean, who is forced to go on the run after her husband’s criminal activities catch up with him. Like with Fast Color, I’m Your Woman is a marked departure from the norms of the genre thriller genre, by portraying a female perspective in a traditionally male-dominated genre. Julia’s direction keeps the focus squarely on Jean, making her the emotional center of the film. Rachel Brosnahan successfully conveys Jean’s transformation from a sheltered and passive housewife to a resilient, resourceful woman determined to survive. As is her way, Julia was able to create a compelling protagonist in a genre that is not exactly known for its authentic character studies.
One thing’s for sure: Julia knows how to create a character, both in her writing and in her directing, even in genres which don’t usually feature character-driven narratives. With only four films under her belt, Julia is just getting started. With many more Julia Hart films sure to be on the horizon, viewers should look forward to who they’ll meet next.
© Julia Lasker (9/20/2023) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read Nicole Ackman’s tribute to Julia Hart here.
Read Sophia Jin’s review of Fast Color here.
Read Jessica Perry’s review of Miss Stevens here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS