It’s been easy to rag on Kristen Stewart over the past few years.
The Twilight movies were an unabashed phenomenon that catapulted the actress (who headlined the series’ maiden installment when she was just 18 years old) to mainstream superstardom, but the tween vampire romance they peddled was of a distinctly cornball nature, full of chaste embraces, overcooked moping, and pale bloodsuckers who freaking shimmered like shiny diamonds when they caught rays. If, as the overwrought face of that franchise, Stewart caught her fair share of flak from Twilight detractors, her tabloid-ready relationship with co-star Robert Pattinson helped paint an even bigger target on her back. And so too did the reason for that relationship’s supposed end—namely, an alleged affair she had with her Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders, which even further stoked the mounting “It Girl”-backlash flames.
And yet a funny thing’s happened since she became a global icon as Twilight heroine Bella Swan—Stewart, as evidenced again by her sterling work in this Friday’s Clouds of Sils Maria, has become her generation’s great young actress.
That was hardly predestined, even though Stewart has, from her nominal breakthrough as the plucky young daughter of Jodie Foster in David Fincher’s Panic Room, always seemed poised for marquee status. Like fellow fresh-faced tentpole titan Daniel Radcliffe, Stewart has, creatively speaking, found herself at the mercy of her own success, struggling to break free from a role that threatened, at an early age, to permanently define her big-screen persona. For millions upon millions, Stewart’s outing in Panic Room, or her turn as the fed-up big sister in Jon Favreau’s 2005 intergalactic blockbuster Zathura: A Space Adventure, were more or less inconsequential; all that mattered was that she was the vampire-loving teen idol with a penchant for melodrama.
Clouds of Sils Maria, however, is further confirmation that Stewart is far more than any one thing. In a role that won her a Best Supporting Actress César (the French equivalent of the Oscars)—becoming the first American woman to ever achieve such a feat—Stewart is akin to a cagey chameleon, revealing a measure of inscrutable mystery and fearless self-possession that’s substantially removed from any of her prior efforts. As the assistant to a famous actress (Juliette Binoche) who’s struggling to decide whether she wants to revisit the play that initially made her a star—albeit this time in the older-woman role, opposite a new headline-courting starlet (Chloë Grace Moretz)—Stewart more than holds her own alongside the spellbinding Binoche, especially in scenes in which she reads lines with Binoche’s character, and their dynamic increasingly takes on a distinct, and discomfiting, life-imitates-art quality.
During a conversation about modern Hollywood’s obsession with superhero stories, Stewart makes a passing jab at the immense cultural influence of pre-teen moviegoers—a cheeky reference to her own time spent front-and-center in the tween spotlight. Nonetheless, more than any such good-natured digs, what makes her Clouds of Sils Maria performance so transfixing is the way in which the actress refuses to provide anything more than a brief, fleeting glimpse behind her character’s enigmatic façade. Is she a devoted acolyte? A ladder-climbing schemer? Something else entirely? Even up until her final scene, which remains open to debate after the film’s credits have rolled, Stewart cloaks her turn in ambiguity, which is not the same thing as indistinctness—rather, to her credit, the actress evokes an uncertainty that speaks to the film’s own uneasy portrait about the clash between fiction and reality, the overt and the unspoken, and the past and the present (and the future).
While those who know her best because of her Twilight fame (and gossip fodder) might find this performance startling, Stewart’s Sils Maria triumph is far from a surprise, since the actress has been doing formidable work in varied projects for the better part of the past half-decade. In 2009, she brought breezy charm and laid-back charisma to Greg Mottola’s amusingly nostalgic Adventureland. In 2010, she exuded swaggering attitude and nonchalant cool as iconic rocker Joan Jett in The Runaways, and she’s similarly gripping in 2012’s On the Road, even though that adaptation of the Kerouac classic falls far short of its source material.
More impressive still, however, were her contributions to two 2014 indies, which even before Sils Maria had definitively marked her as an actress committed to taking risks in unconventional roles. The first of those found Stewart paired with Julianne Moore (in her Oscar-winning performance) in Still Alice, embodying the supportive daughter of a woman dying of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease with a feisty-yet-wounded spirit concealed by a composed, confident exterior. Stewart radiates those same qualities—in a drastically different context—in Camp X-Ray, a drama that centers on Stewart as a soldier newly stationed at Guantanamo Bay, where she slowly forms a relationship with a longtime detainee. Especially in the latter of those two releases, Stewart colors her trademark skinned-knee toughness with a sense of underlying vulnerability, which peeks out in small but significant ways, be it at the corners of her tightly pursed lips, or in the way that her steely glares fleetingly give way to darting, downward glances.
Of course, Stewart’s current hot streak ultimately shouldn’t stun anyone because, haters aside, she was also pretty great in Twilight. Perhaps she was a bit too hemmed in by author Stephenie Meyer’s conception of Swan as a caught-between-two-hunks brooder prone to romantic dithering, sure, but she nonetheless possessed a magnetism that helped make even the series’ most torturous developments at least moderately engaging. It was a role built for a star, and one Stewart proved more than capable of handling. Though as her recent, versatile indie output proves, it was merely the beginning of what now seems like her inevitable ascension to not only Hollywood’s top tier, but to the ranks of cinema’s acting A-list.