The claim that Kristen Stewart is a terrible actress has been in circulation for a while now, mostly due to her work in the "Twilight" series. I've never been able to comment on this before, as I still haven't seen any of the "Twilight" movies, and I've managed to miss just about every other movie that Kristen Stewart has had a significant role in over the past few years. The only exception was "Snow White and the Huntsman," where she looked dazed and not quite all there for most of her scenes. But in the last few weeks, I've seen all three of the 2014 releases that Stewart appeared in, and I think I have a much better picture of her as an actress. And not only can she act, I think she's awfully good in the right role.
Let's start with "Still Alice," the Alzheimer's drama that Julianne Moore won her Oscar for. Stewart plays the title character's youngest daughter Lydia, an aspiring actress who becomes one of her mother's strongest sources of support as her disease progresses. It's not a very big or interesting part, but substantial enough to get a sense of Lydia's place in her family's changing dynamics, her hopes and aspirations. Stewart has no trouble holding her own in her scenes opposite Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin, who plays her father. And unlike her blockbuster turns, here Stewart was fully engaged, brought plenty to the role, and made a very good impression on me overall. No sign of a disastrously wooden bad actress to be found.
Next was "Camp X-Ray," where she plays a young guard at Guantanamo Bay who becomes friendly with one of the prisoners. I found the film itself fundamentally flawed, but Kristen Stewart was perfectly fine as the lead. She's onscreen constantly, in practically every scene as Private Cole, who quickly becomes disillusioned with her work in the prison. Stewart is very credible as a soldier, thanks in large part to the script taking pains to show her strictly regimented daily routine, interactions with other soldiers, and the impact of the military culture on her behavior. Stewart manages to give Privale Cole a strong presence though, and here you can definitely see her characters fit a certain type - introverted, insecure to a certain extent, and struggling with some inner turmoil. Stewart is also also likeable, engaging, and very good at conveying her character's often difficult emotional state.
And that brings us to "Clouds of Sils Maria," the one that Stewart won a Cesar for, the French equivalent of an Oscar. In "Sils Maria," She plays Valentine, the awkward assistant to Juliette Binoche's aging actress, Maria Enders. It's one of Olivier Assayas's terribly thoughtful character dramas, one I found a little too indulgent for my taste. However, I really enjoyed Kristen Stewart here. Binoche is excellent as she always is, but Stewart is the standout in the film. As Valentine she's still reticent, but far more talkative and expressive than either of the other two roles allowed. She gets to be playful. She gets to be funny. Especially delightful are a few meta bits where she gets to comment on her own past work in terrible genre pictures. You can certainly see why the French got excited.
I think Kristen Stewart's bad reputation comes from taking roles in big blockbusters that don't suit her. She works best in smaller, more intimate films. Unlike Jennifer Lawrence or Anne Hathaway, she doesn't have the larger-than-life quality of a marquee movie star. And many of our best actresses don't. If you didn't see Michelle Williams as Glinda in "Oz the Great and Powerful," count yourself lucky. You could say Kristen Stewart doesn't have a lot of range, or that she still has a long way to go before reaching her full potential. She's certainly made some terrible choices. However, there's no question that she can act. And I look forward to her getting on with her career and putting the whole awful "Twilight" business behind her.