Four years ago, Kristen Stewart was doing press for the about-to-release final installment in the Twilight series, which would become her second title on the list of 2012’s 20 highest-grossing movies, vaulting over Snow White And The Huntsman. Meanwhile, the 2012 edition of the New York Film Festival was winding down, with a lineup featuring young, indie-friendly actresses like Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning. While Stewart had fit in a few indies during her four years on Twilight, her most recognized non-fantasy role during that period was probably her love-interest part in the wonderful coming-of-age comedy Adventureland.
Jump ahead to the next presidential election cycle, however, and Stewart’s career looks very different. It looks, essentially, like the New York Film Festival, where she appeared in three movies this year: in a supporting role in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, as part of the ensemble of Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and front and center for Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, which includes multiple scenes of Stewart acting alone, opposite text messages and other apparitions. Stewart is now almost as much of a recent NYFF fixture as her Shopper and Clouds Of Sils Maria director Assayas, and with many critics now firmly on Team K-Stew, it’s fair to say she’s having a moment.
This will surprise anyone who knows Stewart primarily from her Twilight work, or her uncomfortable appearances on talk shows promoting that work. But this year’s New York Film Festival has demonstrated her growing power on movie screens—and, for that matter, in interviews more substantive than Twilight-related appearances. By working her way into art films after a series of inescapable blockbusters, Stewart has both forged an unusual path and brought an unusual sense of star power into a series of small, distinctive movies.
Stewart’s screentime in the just-opened Certain Women is relatively scant; she appears in one of the movie’s triptych of short stories, and often defines scenes by her absence from them. The point of view for her segment, the last and best of the film, belongs to a ranch hand (Lily Gladstone), who slips into a night class on education law unregistered and is captivated by the young lawyer (Stewart) teaching it. She shows her teacher to a local diner afterward, and the post-class meal becomes a ritual—or rather, Stewart’s meal becomes Gladstone’s ritual, as the former wolfs down food before her four-hour drive home and the latter watches in awe, not eating anything.
The emotional weight of this relationship is all on Gladstone, who in a terrific performance quietly moons over Stewart (she has the hipster audience’s newfound crush on her, but seemingly without an immediate outlet to confess her feelings). Stewart, meanwhile, is elusive; Reichardt’s camera captures not just her screen partner but horses, Montana landscapes, other diner patrons, as if she can’t stare at her most famous subject too long. But in those little spaces, Stewart does great work both reacting and not reacting to Gladstone’s wonder-struck eyes. Late in the movie, she silently makes clear, finally, the way she avoids saying anything to hurt her sort-of friend. In doing so, she extends the natural empathy for Gladstone’s character to her own character—her unseen life so clearly suggested by both the performance and the writing.
In Personal Shopper, Stewart isn’t narratively elusive—she’s in practically every scene—but she is emotionally isolated. She plays Maureen, an American living in Paris whose twin brother has recently died. Like Stewart’s Clouds Of Sils Maria character, Maureen makes money by assisting someone richer and more powerful, in this case primarily running fashion-related errands for a famous boss who would be mobbed or hassled going out in public. Maureen is also a medium, as she matter-of-factly states early on, and so was her brother. They had a pact to contact each other from the beyond, which is why Maureen sticks around Paris in a job she doesn’t particularly like (even confesses, later in the film, to downright hate, though she hides it reasonably well). She’s in stasis, looking for a message from her departed brother.
Stewart is an unusual choice to play a medium attuned to the otherworldly, because she seems so grounded in the immediacy of the onscreen moment, more pensive than meditative. So it makes a bizarre sort of sense when Maureen’s more conventional-looking spiritual encounters give way to a less traditional sort of contact: She begins receiving text messages that may or may not come from another plane. This conceit also makes the low-key, offhand Assayas style work better than it should for ghost-related material; his total lack of interest in ghost-movie style becomes more unsettling as Maureen’s nerves get rawer.
Assayas can also be a little tin-eared, a little on-the-nose; his Clouds Of Sils Maria got a lot of credit for the way Stewart and Juliette Binoche made his observations about aging, acting, and Hollywood sound more elegant and natural than they really were. Stewart carries even more of the movie here; multiple scenes of her acting opposite a phone are some of the best in the movie, itchy with the tension of a mediated haunting. These moments play equally well no matter who the audience guesses may be on the other end of those anonymous text messages, just as the shots that follow Stewart around a dark, creaky house early in the film work whether she’s alone or not. Stewart has become an expert at appearing vulnerable while also keeping some part of her motivations opaque. In Personal Shopper, it’s her grief that holds the movie together and makes it feel ghostly and unnerving.
Grieving and cell phones also figure into Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, wherein Stewart’s character Kathryn spends a fair amount of time offscreen, texting her soldier brother Billy (Joe Alwyn) as she implores him to get checked out for PTSD and, as such, maybe not to return to combat in Iraq. It’s something of an amalgam of stock parts (the family outlier with farther left, more progressive political beliefs than much of her family; the protective sister worried about her brother) and the least significant of Stewart’s three NYFF roles. But she still sinks into Kathryn’s wounded psyche, even when the movie gets literal about it. Kathryn has been scarred by a car accident, especially visible in the film’s new 120 fps cinematography, so the self-consciousness Stewart often summons is especially effective in this role.
That self-consciousness hasn’t always won her praise, and in her recent films, Stewart retains some mannerisms that recur in many of her roles: touching her hair, nervous eye-darting, a certain overall twitchiness. But beyond the fact that movie-star mannerisms are often building blocks to careers, she leans on them less these days, or finds fascinating new ones to define her physicality. A tiny, indelible moment in Certain Women where her character wipes her mouth with a diner napkin that’s still rolled up around some silverware (half rushing career gal, half awkward teenager) didn’t just make an impression on me; someone actually stood up and asked her about it at the film’s press conference.
Meanwhile, at the Personal Shopper press conference, Assayas spoke of Stewart choosing the degree of emphasis in many of her solo shots, especially by putting her in charge of “time within a specific shot,” which would sometimes run longer than expected when he saw how she acted in the scene. The movie puts that elastic sense of time onscreen when, in one scene, the camera glides behind a wall as Stewart changes clothes, and she emerges dressed seemingly too quickly for it to have happened in real time. The movie reshapes itself around her, becoming a jittery, idiosyncratic version of an old-fashioned star vehicle, with potential co-stars peeled away until Maureen is alone with her conflicting thoughts and desires. “Some of the sexiest shit I’ve done onscreen, I was alone,” she mused about the film at a festival Q&A, a post-screening ritual where she’s repeatedly proven herself to be a thoughtful, engaged interview subject, much contrary to her reputation from chummier, more “fun” network talk shows.
To some degree, the Kristen Stewart turnaround reflects a shift in perception more than a shift in performance style. That’s not to say her performances haven’t grown more nuanced as she’s played characters more adult and complex than Bella Swan, but cutting free from the context of Twilight—perhaps unfairly maligned for being junky books and movies that attract a female audience, but junky nonetheless—also enhances her mystique. The Twilight movies forced all of Bella’s emotion out in the open, where it could wither under the unforgivingly bright lights of laughable dialogue and weird romanticization of stalker-like behavior. In that series’ vision of flannel-ripping romance, there was no room to pause on Stewart’s expressiveness (initial director Catherine Hardwicke came closest to capturing her particular energy; later entries were too busy attempting to goose the romance with C-grade action and mythology). Without the Twilight baggage (all of those pointless, underwritten characters!), Stewart’s hesitant yet tough performance style can breathe easier.
It’s worth noting that Stewart doesn’t toss her biggest hits under the bus; when answering a question about her career choices at NYFF, she noted that “I’ve never approached anything [feeling] less entitled to something meaningful,” no matter the size or scale of the film. And it’s Twilight, ironically enough, that has made it possible for Stewart to become the patron saint of both IFC Films and making denim look fashionable. Those movies made her name and established her persona, however imperfectly, and created line of credit to which she’s been able to charge any number of excellent performances.
Stewart isn’t alone in making the transition from YA fantasy star to indie-movie fixture. Her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson has become a frequent collaborator of David Cronenberg, and a post-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe has done plenty of offbeat, challenging work on stage and screen. Stewart, Pattinson, and Radcliffe aren’t movie stars in the ever-decaying traditional sense of the term; they can’t be placed in a movie and expected to carry it to box office success, like Sandra Bullock or Leonardo DiCaprio, or even to deliver certain numbers in a particular genre, like Scarlett Johansson or George Clooney. But they do have fans and followers in ways that character actors do not. In other words, they have just enough clout to help movies get made, but not so much that they feel obligated to franchise themselves.
Multiplex fare (and by some strange extension, the entire cinematic landscape) is often ceded to the young and the franchise-hungry, so it’s especially heartening to see actors whose careers come directly from that world pick grown-up movies with such confidence (“I think I have pretty good taste,” Stewart admitted at this year’s festival). In contrast, for Stewart’s three New York Film Festival entries she inhabits characters with wavering confidence, certain about their beliefs or abilities while straining to put them into meaningful action. These are not necessarily characteristics prized by movie stars, even when playing conflicted characters. But Stewart does what both movie stars and great actors are supposed to: She makes her characters’ struggles feel personal, and intimate moments feel big.