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Critic's Notebook: Kristen Stewart's acting shouldn't be eclipsed

Kristen Stewart's personal life has proved fodder for gossip sites and the Twitterverse, but don't lose sight of her evolving performances.

September 04, 2012|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Kristen Stewart stars in "On the Road."
Kristen Stewart stars in "On the Road." (IFC Films )

A tabloid- and tweet-battered Kristen Stewart will endure the red-carpet version of a perp walk before Thursday night's premiere of her new film "On the Road" at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Her appearance should provide a window into how things will play out with angry "Twilight" fans when the final chapter of the saga lands in November. But for those who love the movies, not the celebrity machinations overshadowing them, suddenly, and stupidly, one of the most promising acting careers of a generation seems to be at risk.

Whatever Stewart's indiscretion, in a town, lest we forget, that specializes in being indiscreet on a grand scale, the public flogging she's gotten for breaking Robert Pattinson's heart does not fit the crime.

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With each new film role, her performances continue to deepen; more layers of a complicated interior life are exposed. Stewart treats acting as a craft and one that she is constantly honing, working almost nonstop since she began at age 8 — 30 roles in 14 years.

She hit a trifecta of sorts in 2010 when she played rocker Joan Jett in "The Runaways"; a street-walking troubled teen in "Welcome to the Rileys," opposite a completely charmed James Gandolfini; and a reprise of her most famous role, Bella Swan, in "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse."

Her choices seemed the right balance between the commercial and the offbeat, standout performances more memorable than the films. It would be a pity if romantic melodrama becomes a defining moment for the actress, rather than the footnote it deserves to be.

It was possible to spot Stewart's promise in her "Panic Room" breakthrough in 2002. Playing Jodie Foster's daughter in the thriller, she was only 11 when the film came out. Though she's such a kid in the film, slightly gawky and stick thin, she matches Foster's high-wire act in scene after scene. Never do you get the sense Stewart is "acting"; she is, more specifically, "being," existing inside Sarah Altman's scared skin.

PHOTOS: Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson through the years

In the years since, the actress, now 22, has built a significant body of work for one so young — the terminally ill teen in the small-town drama of "The Cake Eaters," the silent by choice raped high-schooler of "Speak," the not-to-be-forgotten first love in "Adventureland," to name a few. On screen you can see the time she spent searching for what made each of them tick.

The one common strain in virtually every character she has portrayed is that they have been marked in some way by life. Indeed, one of Stewart's great strengths is the way in which she can erect the emotional walls that are so often the default position of the injured, and still allow us to see behind them, infusing that duality even in "Twilight's" Bella, the teen outsider in the vampire love mega-franchise that brought her the fame she never sought.

For the chance to push her talent beyond others' and her own expectations, she seems compelled to take smaller, more challenging roles. Why else return to the serious and seriously smaller stage of independent film so often? Why else cut her fee to work with "On the Road" director Walter Salles? It is the reason she took a minor role in 2007's "Into the Wild." Directed by the always exacting Sean Penn, Stewart was a teenage nonconformist with a crush on Emile Hirsch's soul-searching Chris McCandless; her few moments were unforgettable.

The free-spirited sensibility of her pensive guitar-playing waif in "Wild" has, by all reports, become a force of nature in "On the Road's" Marylou. If Stewart has a type, Marylou is the epitome of it. An iconic character that demands something distinctive, yet something authentic. Someone voracious in their embrace of life and love, willing to risk pain to experience it all.

The movie, based on the beloved Jack Kerouac novel, came out of Cannes earlier this year with mixed reaction except for the near-universal acclaim for Stewart's performance. The film is in Toronto to test the waters for the awards season race, with Stewart talked about as someone who could be in the running.

Like millions of others, I will admit to looking forward to Bella's swan song in the "Twilight" finale. I will also be glad to put the behemoth behind us. Hopefully that will allow Stewart to fly unfettered, to soar as high as her talent will take her.

Until then, I would respectfully ask all the Twi-hards of the world to stand down. Feel free to keep mooning over Pattinson's pains for as long as it suits you, but let Stewart get on with the business of being who she is meant to be: an exceedingly nuanced young actress who has earned her way, every step of it.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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