Kristen Stewart spent five Twilight films getting rescued by werewolves and vampires. Consider Camp X-Ray her rebuttal to a half-decade of playing damsels in distress. As Guantanamo guard Private Cole, Stewart is punched, bloodied, and spat on — and that’s just the first 10 minutes. When her commanding officer jokes, “Welcome to Gitmo,” she smiles.
Will audiences take Stewart seriously as a hard-as-nails soldier? Maybe, but around the festival, Camp X-Ray has already been dubbed Guantanamo Babe. Seeing her in camouflage fatigues demands a double-take, especially because when she stands among the sturdy men who make up her unit she looks like a sapling surrounded by redwoods.
Yet despite her delicate features and tween fan base, there’s something in her that works: the firm chin, her empathetic eyes, and, above all, her determination to prove herself — something Stewart certainly shares with her character. They’re both willing to throw elbows with the big boys, smashing beer cans with their foreheads and doing their best to look the part of the un-fuck-withable Army recruit. And Stewart’s reputation for being quiet and guarded works. She and Private Cole each wear a reserved mask, and with good reason: both the press and these inmates are hoping Stewart/Cole will slip up and reveal something personal that can be used against her.
Perhaps if Stewart was more bubbly and goofy, more Jennifer Lawrencian, her post-Twilight path would be smoother. Lawrence has managed to straddle a blockbuster franchise and a Serious Career, with three Oscar nominations in the last four years. Stewart’s had it harder, but she’s no less talented — she was holding her own against Jodie Foster when she was 11. Her problem is that she picks hard-to-love roles: teen prostitutes, mentally disturbed nymphomaniacs, warrior princesses. They fit her tough image, but you can’t be America’s Sweetheart unless you smile.
Alas, Camp X-Ray won’t be her Winter’s Bone, the Sundance flick that skyrocketed Lawrence to acclaim a few festivals back. The new film, from director Peter Sattler, is solid, but a bit too tempered for a wide audience, especially one still polarized in its opinions about Guantanamo Bay.
Still, it’s worth seeing both for Stewart and A Separation‘s Peyman Mooadi, here playing an 8-years-incarcerated detainee with a restless brain and a hair-trigger temper. And luckily, Stewart has several promising films on the horizon, including dramas by Drake Doremus (Like Crazy) and Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours), and a stoner semi-comedy with her Adventureland co-star Jesse Eisenberg.
I hope she hits one out of the park, especially as she’s one of the unhappy clan of actors who often has shouldered the entire blame for a mediocre film. She’s under high scrutiny and great pressure, but her drive to prove herself to Hollywood won’t pay off until she picks the perfect project. After all, like her Camp X-Ray commander warns, there’s no way to win when you do great work in an unpopular assignment. “Nobody gives you a medal when you do it right,” he sighs. “They just demote you when you do it wrong.”
Amy Nicholson is reporting on the Sundance Film Festival for the Voice. Follow her on Twitter at @theamynicholson.
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