I have a lingering feeling of affection for Mary Stuart Masterson, someone I've never met. It's the roles the winning young actress with the short blond hair had long ago: in Benny and Joon (1993), as the mentally afflicted kid sister who finds happiness with Buster Keaton impersonator Johnny Depp. Or Some Kind of Wonderful (1987), the John Hughes film where she plays a tomboy who secretly longs for Eric Stoltz. Masterson was always lovely to look at, but not intimidatingly so. Perhaps I wanted her to be my secret friend.
Masterson is, of course, all grown up. The former child and then teen star went on to a successful stage career, most recently starring in Nine
on Broadway, for which she received several awards. Masterson can add filmmaker to this list of impressive accomplishments. Her directorial debut The Cake Eaters
had a successful run on the film festival circuit last year and will have a brief theatrical release, before being released on DVD later this month.
I was genuinely nervous for Masterson during the opening scene of The Cake Eaters. She places the two male leads at a kitchen table: twenty-year-old Beagle (Aaron Stafford) and his elderly father Easy (Bruce Dern) eat cereal. They chew loudly and talk while they eat -- about the cereal. I could hear all the warning bells: quirky indie comedy set in small American town about eccentric cast of characters. Oh no!
Deliciously Sweet Without Turning Saccharine
For the record: a film set in a small town about an eccentric cast of characters does not have to be wretched. Deliciously sweet, The Cake Eaters
proves this point without turning saccharine. Jayce Bartok's screenplay is filled with what appear to be stock characters: the hip young rocker son who leaves town (Bartok), the ex- hair-dresser who doesn't (Miriam Shor), the taciturn father (Dern) who shows his children little in the way of affection, the wealthy town matriarch (Elizabeth Ashley) who drives a convertible, and most notable, the young girl dying a slow death of a debilitating disease (Kristen Stewart). The film could have been a disaster. But by the strength of solid writing, able direction, and roundly excellent performances, none of these characters come across as stereotypes; instead, flawed and impetuous, they are easy to care about.
Kristen Stewart's Lovely Performance As Georgia
At the heart of the film are young lovers Beagle and dying Georgia (Stewart). Fifteen-year-old Georgia appears at first to be an ordinary pretty girl, until you realize she can't walk without assistance and suffers from spasms. She speaks as if permanently drunk -- symptoms of her condition, Friedreich's Ataxia. Georgia chooses Beagle, a manchild who is crippled in his own ways, to take her virginity. Rather than a gift, however, she's is putting an awful burden on the already burdened young man, encouraging him to love her, even though the sad outcome is so clear.
Maybe this sounds terrifically maudlin; Stewart's performance is anything but. The young actress achieved A-List stardom as Bella Swan in Twilight. She deserves it. Like Masterson, Stewart has been acting since childhood. She is wonderful in a franchise film about young vampire love, but she's even better in The Cake Eaters. Look for her opposite Jesse Eisenberg in Greg Mottola's Adventureland, opening on March 27. The role of Georgia asks a lot of the young actress, and Stewart does it all: shakes as she walks, slurs every line of dialogue, and manages still to be utterly believable as a fifteen-year-old seductress. She is lovely, as is Masterson's beautifully crafted first film.
The Cake Eaters (2009)
Starring: Jayce Bartok, Aaron Stanford, Kristen Stewart, Bruce Dern, Elizabeth Ashley
Directed by: Mary Stuart Masterson
Produced by: Carol Morris, Patrick R. Morris, Elisa Pugliese
Running Time: 1 hr. 35 min.
MPAA Rating: Not Rated