Mary Masterson's directorial debut, The Cake Eaters, is a drama in a rainy small town about two families coming to terms with death and misfortune, counterpointed with a young couple tasting love for the first time.
With a protagonist suffering from a degenerative terminal disease, the downbeat setting might scare off younger audiences in search of light entertainment. But Kristen Stewart's performance as stubborn young Georgia - determined to experience love and sex, with an awkward older boy, before it's too late - will rally the critics and give the film a strong and attractive star to market.
Even with Bruce Dern, Elizabeth Ashley, and Jesse L. Martin (from Law And Order) rounding out the cast, foreign interest will likely be minimal.
The film's appeal trumps a script by Jayce Bartok that leaves no cliche unexploited, with bitter homecomings that turn bittersweet through kitchen fights, frank car conversations, sex and tearful scene-ending hugs.
The action turns around Beagle Kimbrough (Stanford), a dishwasher in his twenties, who's buried his mother after a long illness. He's grieving with his butcher father Easy (Dern), when his musician brother (Bartok) returns home, after missing the funeral.
Beagle meets and falls for the more aggressive Georgia (Stewart), whose body shakes when her mother takes softly erotic pictures of her to sell. Boozy, brash and goodhearted grandmother Marg Kaminski (Ashley) is the conciliator - and turns out to have been sleeping with Easy for years.
Georgia's goal, quite simply, is to sleep with Beagle and lose her virginity before she loses her life to her disease, as her mother watches in despair. Stewart brings a remarkable mix of physical awkwardness, emotional composure and fatalism to her character, never playing for simple sadness or rage.
First-timer Masterson is competent enough in directing her that the film never falls into afternoon drama sentimentality. Regardless of how The Cake Eaters plays, anyone casting serious drama with young characters will be watching Stewart.
As Beagle, Aaron Stanford hits the right tone for twentyish emotional awkwardness. His and Stewart's odd couple looks even odder on his wheezing Vespa.
Bruce Dern and Elizabeth Ashley fill out a cast with predictability, as appropriate to family drama as the homey upstate New York interiors are in David Stein's production design. The drama is not helped by an incidental (and insistent) solo guitar that sounds like dozens of generic soundtracks that have been through Sundance.
The tender young love affair amid domestic sturm und drang makes you think of a similar couple in David Gordon Green's new Snow Angels. Yet when Stewart is on the screen, the film doesn't seem to be borrowing from anyone.
57th & Irving Productions
The 7th Floor
Mary Stuart Masterson
Mary E Freeman
Andrew George Jr
Jesse L Martin