This weekend Snow White and the Huntsman seeks to storm the box office and take the number one spot. A rather combative and fantastical take on the classic fairy tale, Snow White and the Huntsman stars Chris Hemsworth as the titular hunter and Kristen Stewart as the central heroine. Stewart, as many of you know, is also the star of the beloved or maligned (depending on who you talk to) Twilight Saga. Whether a Twi-hard or a Twi-hater, the basic fact is that the Twilight performances franchise-wide have been less-than-stellar. Stewart herself has taken a great deal of flack from Twilight detractors, and I won’t pretend I didn’t count myself in this camp at one point, for her stilted, vapid portrayal of Bella Swan.
As I said, I didn’t think much of Kristen Stewart after seeing the first few Twilight movies, but one of the greatest fallacies critics can commit is believing that one role represents the breadth of an actor’s talent. It shouldn’t take you long, venturing outside the town of Forks, to understand that Kristen Stewart is far better than Bella. The first movie that opened my eyes to her talent was 2010’s The Runaways. She took on the unenviable take of portraying iconic rocker Joan Jett, and did so with such poise and rebellious complexity. It was one of the biggest surprises of that year for me. Currently, another 2010 film featuring Stewart, Welcome to the Rileys, is available on Netflix’s Watch Instantly service. I have a feeling that if you give it a spin, you might just come around on Kristen Stewart too.
Welcome to the Rileys stars James Gandolfini (The Sopranos), and Melissa Leo as a married couple who recently lost their fifteen-year-old daughter in a car accident. The loss has not only shattered them individually, in different ways, but is also creating a major rift in their marriage. On a business trip to New Orleans, Gandolfini meets a stripper/prostitute played by Stewart, and instantly feels a profound sympathy for her. He takes her under his wing and begins working to improve her quality of life.
The entire emotional crux of the movie, the driving force behind the drama, is the relationship between Stewart and Gandolfini. He looks upon her as a second chance at being a father; at nurturing and protecting the daughter he lost. For her part, Stewart plays the part with fury and thinly veiled vulnerability to give Gandolfini’s character an adequate challenge. It’s true that, like Bella, Stewart’s character here is not exactly happy-go-lucky, so moody does seem to be her forte. But there is a frustrated, unwieldy passion to her performance that makes the character far less passive and, frankly, way less insipid than Bella.
People often talk about performances being raw, it’s sort of a buzzword for critics. But the description fits Stewart’s character, at least at the beginning of the film. She is a foul-mouthed, sexually charged mess of emotional dysfunction. She seems to fight Gandolfini every step of the way even as he tries to help her. Her journey is fascinating to watch as she comes to terms with the idea that not everyone is driven by selfish motivations. This of course coincides with Gandolfini’s realization that he can’t simply replace his daughter, and that he must salvage the family he has left. They both struggle against things they can’t control.
Stewart’s apprehensive, but sincere connection with Melissa Leo is another of the film’s strongest attributes. Stewart works so hard to wriggle out of her hard, jaded exterior and communicate genuine empathy and warmth with Leo’s still very maternal Mrs. Riley. These interactions also remind us that the reason this film works is that, despite her innumerable flaws, there’s something present in Stewart’s fiercely wounded and self-destructive character that makes us root for her. So keep an open mind — it’s not so easy to simply write off an actress.