It features Twilight starlet Kristen Stewart as its centerpiece, a fact that the marketing guys behind the picture really want to hammer home. To get those dollars moving, they tote the fact that the young actress has obtained "billions of impressions" and all that hoopla, but there are even more intriguing elements than that lying underneath the surface of Masterson's debut directorial effort. To my surprise, The Cake Eaters is a modest and winning character drama hallmarked by strong performances that follow stride with Jayce Bartok's sentimental script, one that creates a smart parallel between its title and the oddly tranquil world quaking underneath its theatrics.
Kristen Stewart plays Georgia Kaminski, an intelligent teenage girl born with a rare degenerative disease that locks her into a punch-drunk demeanor of sorts. Her heart's a walking time bomb, ready to give way at any time -- but that's not going to slow her down from grasping at the fruits of life. She poses semi-nude for her photographer mother (Talia Balsam) to bring awareness to her disease, while struggling to share an innocent, youthful fling with local teenage boy Beagle Kimbrough (Aaron Stamford), the son of the local meat butcher (Bruce Dern). She's not out to find a gut-wrenching romance before her time is up ... just a little pleasure and a lot of "carpe diem".
When Beagle's brother (Bartok) returns following a three-year hiatus, the hidden ties that string the two families together slowly unspool. A few subplots arise in The Cake Eaters concerning his departure, mostly revolving around his somewhat heartless nature for leaving the family during the time when their mother Ceci was dying. It also unearths the skeletons of a few imperfect romances that have fallen around the ashes of this once-normal family, affairs and youthful exuberance alike with the two older Kimbrough men. They all parallel against the much-maligned flirtations stirring between Beagle and Georgia, showing that it's the imperfections in relationships that sometimes bring out the similarities among the people involved in them.
As much as Bartok's story attempts to stretch its legs out as a web of down-home dramatics, the core of The Cake Eaters' gravity continuously lies in Kristen Stewart's Georgia. There's a straightforward effectiveness behind her depiction of Friedrich's ataxia -- a condition sort of similar to the physical degeneration properties of cerebral palsy -- where she strikes a balance between heartbreak and repose that allows us to absorb her candor. Stewart showcases her ability to soak into a deeper character than her pop culture counterpart, one that plays off her mild-mannered strengths in a way that makes only humble demands of her ability to project an attention-grabbing presence. Instead, she crafts Georgia into a vital, touching entity, one that ultimately plays out as a catalyst to the drama instead of the self-indulgent focus that she could've been. It also helps that she's surrounded by an all-together solid cast, especially Talia Balsham as the over-protective mother and Elizabeth Ashley as Georgia's quirky grandmother.
Mary Stuart Masterson wears her experiences with Fried Green Tomatoes and Benny & Joon on her sleeve with The Cake Eaters, as they largely share the same sorts of melodramatic flavor and heartrending jabs. But that's not a bad thing, in the slightest. She showcases an intimacy between mothers and daughters in the Kaminski family and an natural, near-pitiless affinity with Georgia, all in strong cinematic fashion that bolsters her directorial introduction into a fine slice of human interaction. The Cake Eaters takes cues from similar schmaltzy films of its sort, but it funnels them into a smooth, unaggressive dramatic flow that transforms this heartbreaking and idealistic story into one of taut credibility. Masterson's first stab at direction isn't perfect, but its earnestness smothers the hiccups that it lets escape.
Video, Audio, and Special Features:
Since this is an unfinalized, non-anamorphic screener version of The Cake Eaters with nothing but a relatively clean English Dolby Stereo track available with no subtitles, DVDTalk will report back with final specs when/if the final product rolls in. Gauging by the transfer as available, it looks like the earthy photography and kitschy score could both look and sound fairly good, but it's not something that can be concretely determined based upon this presentation.
The Cake Eaters could've easily sloshed its way through sentimentality and overblown melodrama, but instead Mary Stuart Masterson takes a sizable handful of realism and molds it into an affective drama about forcing through disabilities, both physical and emotional, to ensnare "carpe diem". Due in large part to a gripping, feisty performance from Kristen Stewart, it's one of the nicer surprises to surface in 2009. Though not free of some questionable kinks, it's still a firmly Recommended showpiece for Masterson's potential directorial talent and a pre-Twilight Stewart.