The closing of 2015 ushered in a reinvigoration of the sometimes mocked, often applauded actress Kristen Stewart. Last year saw the beginnings of this transition, with Stewart taking away the first César award to ever be won by an American woman for her supporting work on Clouds of Sils Maria. Praised by critics and by a willing portion of the public, the arthouse pic by Olivier Assayas marked a turning point in her career (or perhaps it is too soon to tell) as she delicately and deliberately took the role of Valentine and blurred the lines between character and actress, turning the eyes of the critical public on itself.
Stewart has a history of flipping public opinion outside of the camera lens as well. With just a few run-ins with “bad press” throughout her career, from being bullied for not smiling more to various personal relationship ups and downs, Stewart has never apologized for being who she is or allowed it to sully her work in any way. In fact, the actress has adopted a similar modus operandi to her acting. In a recent interview with Indiewire, Stewart revealed, “I don’t feel like I can be anything other than who I am. A lot of actors are like, ‘Oh, that’s not me, I would never, that’s not me, that’s a character,’ but that’s your interpretation of that environment and that circumstance, so who the hell else is it but you?” In a Hollywood acting climate often populated by method actors and the mystical worship of it, these could be seen as fighting words.
Intentional or not, Stewart has become a James Dean of the industry, a rebel against public opinion and expectations of any kind, but in her own quasi-awkward yet increasingly badass Kristen Stewart kind of way. Before getting into her body of work for 2016 alone (including a whopping 6 indie releases), I’ll quickly prove this theory through a perusal of her past films. Starting with her debut in David Fincher’s Panic Room alongside Jodie Foster (whom she has frequently since been compared to) and moving to Twilight (which could arguably be seen as a groundbreaking indie film itself, before Lionsgate/Summit threw money and bad ideas at it), Stewart began her career attracted to story, character, and vision. Although I skipped over several of her notable pre-Twilight indie performances (The Yellow Handkerchief, Into the Wild), her mid- and post-Bella Swan roles as Joan Jett in The Runaways (2010), a stripper in Welcome to the Rileys (2010), an ultra-cool theme park employee in Adventureland (2009), the daughter of a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s in Still Alice, or a Guantanamo soldier in Camp X-Ray (2015) all show Stewart’s dedication to diverse storytelling and arthouse filmmakers with clear vision rather than to films or characters with particular commercial appeal.
Stewart’s film lineup in 2016 is no different, aside from the small caveat that she will have starred or appeared in a total of 6 independent films, all of which look to individually showcase Stewart in new ways. For Certain Women (which premiered at Sundance), Stewart has aligned herself with a strong female cast and creative team – it is written and directed by revered indie filmmaker Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy) and also stars Michelle Williams and Laura Dern. Following the stories of three separate women in small-town Montana, the film is a character study of the American woman and was lauded by critics as a deeply rich “slow burner”. This will be Stewart’s first time being a part of a strictly female-focused project – they also aren’t a common occurrence in the industry, yet. Stewart doesn’t credit her involvement as being in any way related to these industry implications, though, but has rather pointed to her and Reichardt’s shared sense of ease when approaching story and character. Stewart told Variety that “as an actor, it’s kind of your job to tell a story sometimes, and in this case, [Reichardt] just doesn’t work like that. That’s why her films are so drifty, and natural, and alive.”
Stewart then starred in Woody Allen’s Cannes opener Café Society, a film that didn’t exactly “wow” critics (read my review here), but one that had many calling Stewart Allen’s suitable new muse (it also had the highest grossing indie debut at the theaters this year). While this is a bit of a stretch, seeing as how Jesse Eisenberg was the film’s star and protagonist, the pair’s work together created what magic the film did have and solidified them as an acting power couple, reminiscent of Old Hollywood duos like Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn (Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone also seem to be vying for this title). The two previously starred together in Adventureland and American Ultra, both of which thrived (more so the former) on Stewart and Eisenberg’s romantic and comedic simpatico. Like all Allen actors, Stewart auditioned for her role in Café Society. Besides Adventureland, Allen was highly unaware of her past work, but once filming ended, the filmmaker had nothing but graces to give Stewart. In an interview with Variety, Allen commented:”She should have an incredible career. She’s not someone you cast just because she’s beautiful. She can deliver. She’s got a sense of humor. She can give you the heavy stuff.”
In addition to striking up a new working relationship with an established industry director, Stewart also re-teamed with Olivier Assayas, her director from Clouds of Sils Maria, for the ghostly fashion story Personal Shopper. Assayas is not known to repeat his actresses (apart from Juliet Binoche) nor Stewart with her directors, however, Assayas claims that the re-team happened organically, with the film actually being “inspired by Kristen”. In an interview with Getty Images, Assayas said that although she “is a celebrity” she also has a “basic humanity that is so easy to share”. Also premiering at Cannes, the drama had much more of a thunderous and headline grabbing reaction than Allen’s opener. In an early critic screening, the film was met with boos in the crowd (something not unusual at Cannes), but was subsequently praised in reviews and on social media, particularly for Stewart’s mesmerizing performance. A serious psychological horror film featuring ghosts sounds like a premise likely to be met with contention, however, that didn’t stop audiences from giving the film a standing ovation at its festival premiere.
Stewart has one more film yet to be seen by any sort of audience this year, that being Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – it will have its world premiere at the New York Film Festival in September. Although unseen, Billy Lynn is already garnering Oscar talk, likely based on the film’s prestige director, Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi). Based on the titular novel, the film will tell the story of a young soldier’s quick and psychologically challenging return home for a victory tour celebrating a publicly harrowing Iraq battle. Stewart is set to play his sister, Kathryn Lynn. Although it is unclear how Stewart will affect the film at this point, the movie will likely attract divisive attention among left-wing and right-wing opinions (the phenomenon of American Sniper is still fresh for U.S. audiences). Exploring the differences between human experience and public perception, Stewart’s attraction to the story is unsurprising.
Stewart’s last two titles actually premiered in 2015, – Anesthesia at Tribeca and Equals at Venice – but saw their U.S. releases this year. Although being her lesser applauded films of the six, both pictures showcase true arthouse sentimentalities and writer-directors creating clear and inventive imagined worlds. For Anesthesia, actor-writer-director Tim Blake Nelson tells a somber story of intersecting characters that focuses on philosophical humanity in New York City. Along with star Sam Waterston, Stewart was especially praised by critics for bringing particular humanity to an evangelically sullen character (that perhaps too fittingly resembles herself).
Equals is possibly the most unique of Stewart’s films based on aesthetics alone. Led by filmmaker and oxymoronic romance realist Drake Doremus (Like Crazy), the film tells a love story in an emotionless, love-forbidden utopia. The dystopian sci-fi styling is something new to Stewart, but the film’s foundation in basic human connection, emotion, and love seems to be right in her wheelhouse. For Stewart, this particular role couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. She told Variety as much when she said “at this stage of my life where I’m close to these awakening periods and it’s a big deal for me, and to represent them so basically and so hard was intimidating as hell and I knew that the only way it wasn’t going to be trite and awful and cliché was because of him (Doremus).” Coming full circle to Stewart’s love of being herself on film, Doremus’ improvisational style allowed Stewart and co-star Nicholas Hoult to abandon performance and rather treat the film as a “meditation”.
As Stewart prepares for her final festival premiere next month, she will also be honored at NYFF’s annual “An Evening With…” event alongside actor Adam Driver. This special event honors individuals who have made significant artistic impacts to the film world and culture. With Stewart appearing in three of the festival’s titles (Personal Shopper, Certain Women, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), the actress could not be a more fitting choice. 2016 has been a monumental year for the actress and her lasting stamp on the indie world. Filmmakers seem to line up to work with her, and it seems to have something to do with the fact that she is a counterintuitive movie star, a talent teetering the line of celebrity. She is thought by many as a “prestige” actress, but doesn’t seek out awards-bait projects (save Billy Lynn). It is also possible those roles are simply not offered to her, but regardless, her uncompromising talent and dedication has brought Stewart into a league of her own within the industry, making her one of the most exciting and compelling actresses working today.