Kristen Stewart’s mom in her first big movie was Jodie Foster, and she has followed Foster’s example ever since.
Playing a mother and daughter terrorized by home invaders in David Fincher’s “Panic Room,” they reportedly grew close (their characters even share the same limp, blunt-cut hair). It’s not hard to imagine Foster giving Stewart advice on how to navigate the perilous journey from child star to adult performer, which Foster managed better than any other actor in movie history. Stewart has finessed it, too, taking pages from the Foster playbook: avoiding children’s movies, seeking out offbeat projects rather than blockbusters, working with foreign filmmakers (both have demonstrated French fluency on film) and exploring other aspects of movie production. It’s only a matter of time before Stewart, like Foster before her, directs a feature.
What made it possible for Stewart, of course, was a smash franchise: “Twilight.” The four vampire/werewolf romances were all in theaters by the time she was 22 and earned her so much money that she could have retired then. Instead, she made movies she wanted to make rather than those she “had” to make to build a career, appearing in a succession of titles more likely to pop up at the Cannes Film Festival than at a drive-in. Stewart hasn’t been in a big hit since the “Twilight” series and she probably doesn’t care.
Along the way, she learned a lot about movie acting. In “Panic Room” and a couple other childhood projects, she was a natural, but when she needed to start crafting performances, it took a while for her to look comfortable on camera. She appears to wish she were elsewhere in the first two “Twilight” movies (although, with those scripts, who could blame her?). In the last two, though, she seems to accept the material for what it is, allowing her humor and intelligence to shine through the dopey Team Edward/Team Jacob stuff.
In those years, she also began seeking out not directors who made hits but innovators who could challenge her to work in new ways: Olivier Assayas (who made two of her best movies), Kelly Reichardt and Ang Lee among them. It hasn’t always worked — “Cafe Society,” by Woody Allen, is both terrible and ethically problematic — but few major actors are more adventurous than Stewart.
One result of her boldness is that fans probably missed many of Stewart’s small, offbeat projects. It’s like she envisions the movies she makes as sparkling gems to collect and share with small groups of people who will appreciate them. So think of these seven gems as your Museum of Modern Streaming Stew-Art.
Certain Women (2016)
My favorite Stewart leading performance also happens to be the shortest, since Reichardt’s “Certain Women” links adaptations of three Maile Meloy short stories. Stewart’s a lawyer/teacher who develops an intense bond with one of her students. It’s a subtle movie, in a way that may not be ideal for stop-and-start home viewing (you need to force yourself to fall into its deliberate rhythm), but Stewart’s work is quietly devastating. Bonus: Laura Dern and Michelle Williams, both great, anchor the other stories.
Personal Shopper (2016)
I’ve heard it described as a “ghost story” and a “psychological thriller,” but neither term captures the queasy suspense of the more recent of two movies in which Assayas cast Stewart as a star’s lackey. For most of “Personal Shopper” (maybe all of it), it’s not clear what’s happening as Stewart’s title character deals with a gruesome corpse and text messages from her twin, who is supposed to be dead.
Charlie’s Angels (2019)
Stewart’s one attempt at a post-“Twilight” blockbuster didn’t do well and, honestly, it’s so-so. But she is astonishing in it, giving the kind of movie-star performance I would never have guessed she’d want to, or be able to. Most Stewart characters are introverted and mumbly, but her Sabina Wilson is charismatic, wisecracking, loud and sexy. Weirdly, Stewart is so wildly enjoyable that she may hurt the movie; her pizazz makes the other two angels even more blah.
Panic Room (2002)
Stewart is a good match for Foster, but in an early sign of her versatility, it’s also possible to imagine Stewart with the originally cast Nicole Kidman, whose injury forced her withdrawal a couple of weeks into production. The kid is sometimes a brat, but she’s also the one who saves the day.
Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)
Stewart has not been nominated for an Oscar, but she won the French equivalent and a bunch of other awards for her work in Assayas’ cheeky comedy/drama, with Juliette Binoche as a movie star and Stewart as her assistant. Assayas lays out weird mysteries he never intends to solve, while the leads sometimes play their characters and sometimes seem to be versions of themselves, talking about how to play their characters.
Stewart portrays various aspects of actress Jean Seberg in this fictionalized drama, which depicts the FBI hounding her to suicide because of her political activism at the height of a career that included the Minneapolis-shot “Airport” and Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece “Breathless.” Stewart’s Seberg is a different person on movie sets, where she must be compliant, than she is with her family, where she seems unsure, or with members of the Black Panthers, who show her a kind of freedom she didn’t know existed. That’s because Seberg became a star as a teenager, which must feel familiar to Stewart, who does her best work when she re-creates the fresh-faced Iowan’s audition for her debut in “Saint Joan.”
The Runaways (2010)
At the time, introspective Stewart seemed like an odd casting choice for brash Joan Jett, guitarist for the pioneering all-female band. Instead, she uses her own tentative quality to suggest that Jett leaned on a bold onstage persona to overcome her own shyness. The Bill Pohlad-produced musical drama may not be the definitive portrait of the band (that’d be the documentary “Edgeplay”), but Stewart rocks.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367