Every Tuesday in Found Footage, Heave podcast personality Nico Lang tackles movies that make him move against the current; ones he loved that everyone else hated, and vice versa. This week, he moves onto a larger level, discussing why Kristen Stewart gets a bad rap.
Of all of the things I like that other people don’t, I think the thing I’m coolest with is Kristen Stewart, because I totally get that. She’s an actress who is often hard to like, and her public persona seems to insist that she doesn’t care about you liking her, or doesn’t really want you to. Because of that aversion to fame and celebrity, I’ve always found it strange that Stewart picks a lot of tentpole projects such as Twilight and Snow White and the Huntsman. Not only will it perpetuate the media attention she overtly loathes, but she also is ruining her career by being in them, because she doesn’t make sense in them.
Certain actors have the ability to carry a blockbuster film as a lead, and A-List Alphas like Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Will Smith are all but genetically engineered to carry a film on their shoulders. The problem with Stewart is that her tentpole acting is a lot like her red carpet appearances: she bites her lip a lot, twirls her hair, slouches and looks like she’s not having fun—because you sense she isn’t. She seems to hate the attention of the IMAX cameras as much as she does those of the paparazzi.
I think this is a shame, because by continuing to make people hate her through single-handedly taking down Snow White and the Huntsman, a role she was hilariously miscast for, she is missing out on an opportunity to show people how good an actress she can be. Whenever I tell people I like Stewart, I get the same reaction as when I tell them I think Channing Tatum is a talented thespian: they squint at you like you just told them their grandmother has herpes, and they don’t know what to make of that sentence existing. And then I’ll follow up by listing off movies Tatum was great in (Stop-Loss, 21 Jump Street, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints), and the person I’m conversing with always responds that they haven’t seen them. With Channing Tatum, I secretly think that’s on them, because he’s been doing great work in blockbusters and independent films (where he got his start) for some time, and 21 Jump Street was a hugely-acclaimed hit. Tatum tries very hard to be taken seriously, committing to dozens of new projects constantly, whereas Kristen Stewart slouches. She is her own worst publicist, and that’s not going to make people seek out the movies she was fantastic in.
At her best, Stewart exudes the air of a female Marlon Brando—but like a Brando filtered through Ellen Page. Kristen Stewart uses a lot of Brando and James Dean’s signature mannerisms, like mumbling and that stance of hers that sometimes comes off like Gollum in plaid. This acting aesthetic works well in smaller-scale films more suited to that style, and especially in roles where her mumbling doesn’t have to carry the weight of the film. The first time I was aware of Stewart was in David Fincher’s incredibly underrated thrill ride Panic Room, in which she plays Jodie Foster’s daughter, a pairing weirdly prescient of Stewart’s future. In the film, Stewart has to be the ever-terrified daughter to Foster’s Damsel in Kick-Ass, who is too busy fighting off bad guys and keeping a cornrowed Jared Leto from burgling her house to be distressed. Thus, Stewart is the emotional register of much of the film, the proxy for us on screen. While Fincher’s cameras and his auteur tricks work whiz-bang action magic onscreen, Stewart tells us how to react and how to be afraid. Without her, there are no stakes.
Similarly, Stewart uses her preternatural ability to brood to great effect in Adventureland, another movie in which she has to be the emotional core. Directed by Greg Mottola of Superbad and The Daytrippers, Adventureland blends the latter’s indie feel with the party-happy nature of the former to give us the perfect coming-of-age movie, one that is both happy to go along with the stereotypes while secretly subverting them. Adventureland is about that idyllic summer in which a white post-college or college student has to work the dumpy job that changes his life, something we also saw in fare like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh; these things are usually corny, lesson-heavy and everything that Seinfeld was trying to get away from. The boy will meet a girl, and she will be quirky and change him, and no one will ever be the same again after that summer—except for the girl, who is never allowed to change much or be more than superficially interesting. It’s always about the guy, because Garden State was secretly an episode of Sex and the City.
But in this case, Kristen Stewart’s Em is easily the most interesting thing in the film, and not in that Manic Pixie Dream Girl way, where interesting just means “in no way resembling human behavior.” In fact, her performance is the exact opposite of that, grounded in the real-world angst of early adulthood. Em’s father recently remarried after the death of Em’s mother from cancer, and her hatred of her new stepmother consumes her.At every moment, you can feel the tension inside her, one that she expresses without the need to resort to Stewart-cliches, like biting her lip.
The emotion she expresses feels genuine and earned through experience, and it brings a real resonance to her budding romance with Jesse Eisenberg, a relationship she’s just as unsure about as she is about the rest of her life. It elevates what could have been a knock-off Michael Cera lovefest to great drama. Brando would have been proud, just as he would have been with her performance in Into the Wild, one almost shockingly self-possessed for someone playing a 14-year-old. Her insecurity is as palpable as her pervasive sweat, and the role is practically an audition for the On the Road movie.
That said, I think that fare like On the Road (which debuted to lukewarm reviews at Cannes, but garnered raves for her performance in it) represents the perfect blend for high-profile indie darlings like Stewart. The level of ambition and care needed to bring such a project to life and film a work often labeled as “unfilmable” rivals the most Theron-wielding fantasy epic Stewart could ever be in, and Stewart’s own celebrity can help bring further attention to such projects. She can do the sweaty work she excels at without letting her star outshine the film around her, like many actors do when they “slum it” in the indies. Someone like Meryl Streep is simply too famous for something like Dark Matter, and one doesn’t expect Tom Cruise to line up for the next Whit Stillman movie; it just wouldn’t work.
Instead, Stewart can take her cues from Channing Tatum, whose recent Magic Mike is a perfect model for actors who want to keep doing indie work at the megaplex. Although the film is almost criminally entertaining—currently the best time I’ve had at the movies in 2012—having indie savant Steven Soderbergh at the helm gave the film a low-budget sensibility you almost never see in tentpole films. Magic Mike was like watching an independent film snuck into the mainstream, making Channing Tatum and Steven Soderbergh the Jessica Seinfields of blockbusters. If Kristen Stewart wants to succeed in Hollywood, she will need to find a way to do the same thing—doing what she’s good at while also playing the system. As the current highest-paid actress in Hollywood, she now has the power and clout to make that system work for her, rather than being destroyed by it. If there’s any cue she can take from Brando, let it be that one.