Kristen Stewart has been a much-maligned actress ever since her unforgettable – and arguably regrettable – presence in the Twilight films. Yet she’s recently gone on to win prestigious awards and glowing reviews for her performances in Still Alice, Clouds of Sils Maria and Camp X-Ray. Could it be that her capabilities transcend the quality of the franchise which launched her face upon the world? Yes, they surely do.
It’s unfortunate that Stewart’s most mainstream films – not only Twilight but also Snow White and the Huntsman and, to a lesser extent, The Runaways – have often been those in which she’s given her poorest performances. But there are plenty of reasons to give Kristen Stewart a second chance, as this whistle-stop tour of her career thus far will argue. Put Twilight out of sight and out of mind, and let her many superior performances take centre stage.
To be brutally honest, Stewart’s career didn’t have the most promising start. Flat delivery and minimal charisma marked her early turns in Panic Room and Catch that Kid. However, in 2007’s The Cake Eaters, the sole directing effort of ‘80s second-string star Mary Stuart Masterson, Stewart played a teen suffering from a degenerative muscular disease. Here the mannerisms she’s been heavily mocked for – twitching, stuttering, general awkwardness – made total sense. Not only was she able to convincingly embody physical deterioration – a feat Eddie Redmayne was recently lauded for – but she expressed the self-consciousness of teenagerdom. Like Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, Stewart showed herself to be skilled at vocal manipulation, an ability she would further demonstrate in 2012’s On the Road.
Also in 2007, Stewart’s brief performance in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild rang true; it’s filled with yearning and suggests a sexuality her young character doesn’t yet fully understand. The depths of loneliness and sadness evoked make her farewell with Emile Hirsch’s Chris one of the most heartrending moments of the film.
That brings us to 2008, and the release of the original Twilight, which is probably a case of the less said the better. After that, though, came Greg Mottola’s still underrated Adventureland, the film that truly elevated Stewart’s career. In this endearing and hilarious indie gem Stewart’s Em Lewin became the first in a long line of grungy, androgynous, aloof and slightly cooler-than-thou characters she would bring from script to screen. There is, admittedly, potential for irritation as this enigmatic character strings along Jesse Eisenberg’s under-confident protagonist, but Stewart takes Em far beyond the cardboard cutout she could have been, and makes you feel why he’s so drawn to her. The best performances are an abstraction; they are felt and experienced, and language cannot do them justice.
Reteaming with Eisenberg, Stewart again reprises this kind of persona in next week’s American Ultra. Perhaps she could be accused of a lack of versatility due to her continual recourse to roles like these. Yet the wandering, independent characters created across five years of work spanning Adventureland, The Runaways, On the Road, Clouds of Sils Maria and even Camp X-Ray seem almost like what-if glances into possible trajectories of the life of a single person. For instance, it’s not hard to imagine Adventureland’s Em upping sticks for Europe like Clouds’ Valentine or, more radically, joining the army in a misguided attempt to find herself. Stewart makes her characters, all lost to a differing degree, recognisable and relatable. If she were a few years younger, she could have made for a softer, more vulnerable Margo in Paper Towns.
In Walter Salles’ adaptation of Kerouac’s beloved beat novel On the Road Stewart was impressive as Marylou, a character years younger than her, and a part Lindsay Lohan is rumoured to have been considered for. Putting her vocal skills to work again, Stewart pitched her voice higher than it is naturally. At once childlike and adventurous, she gives a vibrant and sensual performance, yet also succeeds in expressing Marylou’s desire for a life of greater stability than that she finds on the road.
If Stewart were a few years younger, we wouldn’t have Camp X-Ray. In Peter Sattler’s film she’s cast almost entirely against type as a young soldier in the US army, stationed at Guantanamo Bay. To summarise the film would destroy some of the narrative’s entrancing and infuriating ambiguity. Stewart, though, is steely and gives a performance as memorable for its physicality as its dialogue. Somehow this is a straight-to-DVD release in the UK, so you can watch it from August 30th.
Stewart is at her best when performing alongside actors with whom she shares great chemistry. In Still Alice this is even more in evidence than in Camp X-Ray. Stewart’s collaboration with Julianne Moore made Alice’s continually fluctuating relationship with her youngest daughter Lydia the most interesting aspect of the film, and it’s a shame it wasn’t explored further. As Lydia, an actress herself, Stewart is more alert and engaged to her fellow cast than ever before, flipping vocal tones at the drop of a hat in order to realistically convey multiple family dynamics at work.
Perhaps this strength led to her being recast alongside Jesse Eisenberg for American Ultra. Here’s to watching Kristen Stewart back at her grungy best.