Cairo’s True Motive In ‘Miller’s Girl’ Ending Scene Explained


For a film to have so straightforward a plot and still leave you wondering who the real antagonist is, there’s got to be something that Miller’s Girl did very wrong or very right. Without assuming that there will be a unanimous bad opinion about how Miller’s Girl went about telling the story of a scandalous relationship between a teacher and a student, I’ll tell you why this film leaves you confused at all. Jade Halley Bartlett’s film is a frustrating paradox in itself. Starting with the fact that, despite being written by a woman, the central character, Cairo, is an exhausting amalgamation of traits that are grossly fetishized for the male gaze, I mean, at a point, the brilliant Cairo goes ahead and says she’d rather be smart than hot. [Spoiler Alert] And while her friend Winnie’s point about those two things not being mutually exclusive kind of suggests the film is aware of what it’s doing, the discourse doesn’t really go far enough to make its stand known. But the most appalling paradox in Miller’s Girl seems to be intentional. By even introducing confusion about who’s to blame between a young student and a middle-aged professor, the film tries to create a sense of moral ambiguity in a story that very clearly has a predator and a victim. 

Cairo’s absent parents have given her an unhealthy idea of love. And that immediately implies that Cairo would be prone to accepting any affection that comes her way. Knowing how much of the identity she’s still forming has to do with literature—the things she writes and the things she reads—it’s almost like it was inevitable she’d be drawn to Mr. Miller. The fact that she’s an admirer of Miller’s short stories only makes his acknowledgment of her literary brilliance all the more meaningful. Mr. Miller was never unaware of the boundaries he was crossing with his student and the flirtatious ways he was leading her on. Yet, Miller’s Girl somehow manages to make a cunning villain out of the young, impressionable girl by the end of the movie. In the ending scene, Cairo bumps into Mr. Miller outside the education board office as he’s waiting to find out if this is the end of his career as a teacher. The tears in Cairo’s eyes are quickly joined by a smile on her face. Is this Miller’s Girl‘s bizarre way of telling us there are two sides to the story? 

Despite the textbook toxic attachment attributes Cairo’s character is laden with, she didn’t seem like the kind of girl who would’ve hankered for Miller’s validation. The validation came to her without much effort from her side. All along, Miller’s been balming the pain of his failed career as a writer with Cairo’s admiration for him. Cairo’s undeniable mastery with the pen only helps his distorted idea of how he should conduct himself around a student who’s smitten by him. So, in a way, they’re both in it for the validation they’re not getting from the appropriate sources, but as the adult holding the higher position in the power dynamics between the two, it was Miller who should’ve been more mindful of his actions.

Cairo’s wish to have her longing reciprocated was always there. She dressed up for him. She went to the poetry club for a chance to be with him in a space where the conventional restraints of their roles didn’t exist. But none of it happened without Miller’s wildly inappropriate encouragement. Instead of pulling back, he was flattered when Cairo decided to emulate the literary style of a controversial author for her midterm short story. It was Cairo’s way of testing the waters, checking to see if Mr. Miller was willing to take their relationship to the next level. Is his far-too-late realization of how wrong this is meant to exonerate him? Even though Cairo never got to know about it, her supremely suggestive story about them had the desired effect on Mr. Miller. It’s only when the shock factor of how far he’s let this go overcomes him that Miller introspects. And even his acknowledgment isn’t without his characteristic weakness. Instead of coming out and saying he’s done something terribly wrong, he gaslights his wife and blames her for his obsessive need to be adored. 

Winnie’s crush on Boris, the gym teacher, made her want to have her friend Cairo join in on the adventure. It was convenient that Cairo didn’t have an achievement she thought would be worthy enough for the Yale essay. In the end, as Miller’s rejection sends Cairo into a manic state of rage, an obnoxious shift in the narrative wants to pin the blame on her. Winnie’s always encouraged Cairo to pursue this problematic relationship with her professor. At no point did she seem to question if Cairo was going too far. And yet, only to villainize Cairo, Winnie is weirdly turned into this righteous kid breaking down because her friend is destroying Miller’s life. The ending seems to be jarring with this sudden shift in the narrative. We’re to believe that Cairo’s this manipulative 18-year-old who’s done this all to achieve something she can write her essay about. Even if Miller’s Girl wants to play it as a conflict where both parties had foul intentions, there’s one thing that gives away the film’s shocking ignorance when it comes to such problematic relationships.

When Miller’s suspended, Boris is the one to lecture him about the existence of lines and how it’s best not to cross some. Are we sure that Boris is the right person to be chastising a middle-aged creep? Boris has been tremendously encouraging of every move that Winnie has made to seduce him. He even shared his personal phone number with her. You’re telling me he didn’t hope to receive exactly the kind of inappropriate texts and videos that Winnie sent him? That doesn’t sound very convincing. If you think about it, all of this kind of points to the fact that Miller’s Girl is only critical of inappropriate relationships if they go physical, which it did in Miller and Cairo’s case when the two kissed. So setting up a ridiculous motive to pin on the real victim in this scenario is Miller’s Girl‘s way of cutting the creepy ol’ professor some slack. If Cairo’s believed to be the conniving teen “trapping” a man into a convoluted mess, Miller gets to look like the poor guy who was struggling with low self-esteem and had a bit of a wobble. It’s all supposed to come together to force some gray into the pitch black. 

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Lopamudra Mukherjee
Lopamudra Mukherjee
In cinema, Lopamudra finds answers to some fundamental questions of life. And since jotting things down always makes overthinking more fun, writing is her way to give this madness a meaning.

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