Julia Hart draws from her experience to bring characters to life

As part of our Tribute Series, FF2 Media celebrates the work of female filmmakers. Be sure to click on the film titles for full reviews & see where you can stream on JustWatch.com.

Julia Hart is proof that not only can you transition from another career into filmmaking, but that having that background can make your films stronger. The former high school teacher is amongst the most promising writer-directors working today with Miss Stevens (2016), Fast Color (2019), and Stargirl (2020) already under her belt. She has an understanding of adolescents that allows her to craft young characters that feel authentic but also interesting. She’s not only a talented director, but a creative writer as well, crafting original and engaging screenplays.

Hart was a high school teacher for eight years after graduating from college. After deciding to transition into the film industry, her first project was screenwriting The Keeping, a 2014 action drama directed by Daniel Barber. However, she quickly decided that she wanted to direct the films of the screenplays she wrote, which she did for her following three projects. 

Hart is married to producer Justin Horowitz who is best known for producing La La Land. Horowitz and Hart are often co-writers, with him having co-written the screenplays for each of the three films she has directed. On Twitter, Hart said that while they both contribute to everything, she focuses on dialogue while Horowitz is more interested in the action and structure. Hart is also a working mother and has said in interviews that being a mom helped her feel empowered to become a director. 

MISS STEVENS

Hart’s directorial debut was Miss Stevens, an indie film about an English teacher taking three students to a drama competition. The film stars Lily Rabe as Rachel Stevens, Timothée Chalamet as Billy, and Lili Reinhart as Margot. The film touches on Billy’s struggles related to the behavioral disorder that the school’s principal has warned his teacher, Rachel, about and the ways that Rachel herself is struggling. Miss Stevens is a compelling portrait of a handful of characters from uptight and organized Margot to gifted but struggling Billy. It also has a cute side-story about the third student Sam (played winningly by Anthony Quintal) meeting a boy at the competition and going to Miss Stevens for advice. 

Hart garnered more attention with her second feature Fast Color, an indie superhero film starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Ruth. The film also features Lorraine Toussaint as Ruth’s mother and Saniyya Sidney as Ruth’s daughter. It’s not your usual superhero movie, but rather a film about matriarchal power and a three-generational family of black women gifted with special talents. The film boasts strong performances and a very original concept. What’s more, the visuals are stunning, particularly the use of color. The special effects in the scenes around the earthquakes and Lila’s abilities seem more like art than normal special effects. What makes the movie so unique though is that these women might have special powers, but they’re simply trying to learn to live with them and mend their relationships, not save the world. 

FAST COLOR

Hart’s latest film, Stargirl, debuted on Disney+ earlier this year. It was written by Hart, Horowitz, and Kristen Hahn and is based on the beloved novel by Jerry Spinelli. It stars singer-songwriter Grace VanderWall in her acting debut in the titular role with Graham Verchere as Leo and Karan Brar as Kevin. The film chronicles sixteen-year-old Leo’s admiration of and relationship with an eccentric classmate who goes by the name Stargirl. The film also does a great job of capturing the feelings of having a crush as a young teenager and its leads have good chemistry together. 

Stargirl feels like it lives somewhere in between your typical Disney high school film and an indie coming-of-age drama. It has lovely visuals, especially in its use of color (a common thread across Hart’s filmography), and a handful of musical scenes that utilize VanderWall’s talent well without feeling disjointed. It’s certainly more visually interesting than most teen films due to Hart’s style. And it’s not your typical romantic-comedy as it tackles topics like bullying, grief, and the importance of being true to yourself. 

One common thread in Hart’s films is stories set at schools or featuring young actors. Miss Stevens provides a fascinating look at teacher-student relationships, the boundaries within those relationships, and the way that students rely on their teachers. Meanwhile Stargirl is perhaps a somewhat rosy view of high school, but it has the perfect amount of nostalgia that a teenage film should have. Hart’s young characters feel authentic, likely because of her wealth of experience with teenagers as a teacher at a high school. When Rachel Stevens practices her lesson plan in her hotel room aloud, it’s easy to imagine that it could be drawn from Hart’s own experiences. 

Hart’s films also contain strong performances across the board which is impressive for a new director. 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. Hart perfectly knows how to not distract from it with her camerawork and blocking, while also providing his classmates’ and teacher’s reaction. 

STARGIRL – Director Julia Hart and Grace VanderWaal as Stargirl. Photo by Dale Robinette. © 2020 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Mbatha-Raw is fantastic in all of Fast Color, but particularly in the earthquake scenes, and child actress Sidney also delivers a great performance. Perhaps most impressive is how natural VanderWall feels in Stargirl, an ambitious leading role for an acting debut. Verchere and Brar’s acting is also far above what you would expect from a Disney movie of this kind. Hart excels at working with actors, particularly younger ones, and ensuring that their work perfectly brings her stories to life. 

While her previous films are great, Hart seems like someone to keep your eye on for what she might create next. She currently has a TV series in the works at Amazon based on Fast Color. Hopefully we’ll get to see more of what Ruth and Lila’s powers are capable of. Hart is also working on a film called I’m Your Woman which she is directing and co-writing with Horowitz. The drama will star Rachel Brosnahan who is best known for the television show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. 

Hart’s experiences as a teacher have brought her works set in schools a level of depth and understanding that other filmmakers often lack. It’s also perhaps her experiences with high schoolers that help her draw such great performances out of younger actors. Hart is an exciting young writer-director whose films are a great distraction from the current situation. 

© Nicole Ackman (5/15/20) FF2 Media

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Nicole Ackman
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Nicole Ackman is an FF2 Media Contributor based in North Carolina, after living in London and New York. She graduated from Elon University with a Bachelors degree in History and Strategic Communication and from City University of London with a Masters degree in Culture, Policy, and Management. She is a theatre and film critic and is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. Her taste in film tends towards period dramas, movie musicals, and anything starring Saoirse Ronan. In addition to film, she is passionate about history, theatre, Disney parks, and classic novels by female writers.
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