Judge Tamika Adair thinks love is just icing on the cake.
For everything we lose, there's someone we find.
Remember that old adage, "you can't have your cake and eat it, too"? With a title like The Cake Eaters, you would expect that the main character is a smug bastard who indulges in a mapped-out life, free of problems, drama or pain. Well, the opposite appears to be true in this film. In fact, in the words of Jayce Bartok, the writer of this lovely tale, the title serves as a metaphor for the people in this film who don't have their cake yet.
The Cake Eaters takes place in a small hick town in upstate New York among an eccentric cast of quirky townsfolk. I know, I know. It sounds too eerily familiar. Indie films about small town drama are a dime a dozen. But, that doesn't mean that this film is absent any genuine charm that would deem it unlikable. On the contrary, it's very endearing once you get into it. However, the palpable drawback is that it feels unfinished. Although it creates a few subplots, once the main plot is resolved it checks out just when you start to get wrapped up in the characters. The only thing left is a good film that missed the mark at being great.
Facts of the Case
First-time director and longtime actress Mary Stuart Masterson (Fried Green Tomatoes) takes a compassionate look at two dysfunctional families, the Kimbroughs and the Kaminskis, as they delve deep into the tangles of affairs, secrets and love. The male Kimbrough clan comprises is comprised of the recently widowed Easy (Bruce Dern, Big Love) and his adult sons: high school cafeteria worker Dwight, a.k.a. "Beagle" (Aaron Stanford, X-Men: The Last Stand), and failed musician Guy (writer Jayce Bartok). The predominantly female Kaminski family includes a handicapped teenager, Georgia (Kristen Stewart, Twilight), her opportunistic and overbearing mother, Violet (Talia Balsam, The Wackness), and free-spirited, hell-raising grandmother, Marg (Elizabeth Ashley).
Only one year older than the character she plays, Kristen Stewart is amazing as Georgia Kaminski. She convincingly plays a teenage girl suffering from Friedrich's Ataxia, a rare genetic disease that targets the nerve system by causing symptoms ranging from coordination problems and slurred speech to heart failure. Stewart exhibits these symptoms ailments with visceral and heartbreaking realism. She brings a level of maturity and potency to the part that is unheard of for a girl her age. Seeing her in Twilight doesn't do justice to what she is truly capable of. This does.
Her character is approaching a precarious time where she is slowly coming into her own and, at the same time, losing her ability to walk. Forced to face her imminent death rather than the promise of life, Georgia is committed to make the most of her short life by demanding her independence from Violet.
Under the guise of bringing awareness to the disease, Violet selfishly uses Georgia's condition to further her career as a photographer by taking semi-nude art photos of her. Unable to separate Georgia's sickness from her tenacious spirit, Violet constantly struggles to control Georgia the best she can.
The crux of the story lies in the burgeoning relationship between Georgia and Beagle. When Beagle, a socially awkward misfit, comes along, Georgia decides to corner and use him in her desperation to lose her virginity. It's refreshing to see such feistiness and overwhelming resolve in a disabled character that refuses sympathy and self-pity.
Beagle isn't without his own problems. Although Georgia's problem is primarily physical, Beagle's is more emotional. Burdened by the responsibility of being his mother's primary caregiver until her death, Beagle is carrying around a lot of bitterness and anger towards his father and non-existent brother. The tension explodes after Beagle catches Easy and Marg engaging in an intimate moment. Upset and feeling betrayed, Beagle confronts his father and the truth finally comes out that they have been having an affair for years.
After leaving home to struggle as an indie rocker in NYC for three years, Guy returns, guilt-ridden at the thought of missing his mother's death. He is greeted with a warm welcome from his father and lukewarm indifference from Beagle. When Guy tries to reconnect with his the ex-fiancée, Stephanie (Miriam Shor, Swingtown) that he left behind, she still harbors some residual resentment over his sudden disappearance. She immediately rebuffs him in his efforts to walk back into her life. But it doesn't take long for old feelings to awaken and draw her back in. I must admit that I'm shocked at Miriam Shor's take on Stephanie, as I'm used to her playing the uptight Stepford wife in Swingtown. She shows great range as a woman on the other end of the spectrum. Seeing her as the accessible and tatted-up hairstylist with heavy makeup and an edgy sense of style is illuminating.
What I love about this movie is the ongoing theme of love and loss. Still grieving the recent loss of his wife, Easy is not afraid to love again with Marg. Beagle, suffering from the same loss, is scared about getting involved with another person who is terminally ill, but resolves to appreciate all the time he does have with Georgia.
Masterson does a great job of subtly setting up the layers of the story, highlighting the simplicity in each character's daily actions. You can tell that those years of working on melodramatic films, fraught with archetypal emotion and anxiety, paid off by showing Masterson what not to do. With the elements of death and incurable disorders, the story could easily transition into an over-the-top tale that exaggerates these issues. But it doesn't. Underscored with solid cast, it slowly builds into a modestly captivating character drama that refuses to be sentimental, but can't help but be touching.
It's the small moments that amount to so much in The Cake Eaters, especially by Stewart and Dern. After the Kimbrough men go to a bar to celebrate Guy's homecoming, Guy places two big bowls of peanuts in front of Easy and Beagle, and Easy returns with the completely unexpected and hilarious line, "What are we, elephants?" With Dern's fondness for extemporaneous delivery, the line is genius and a testament to his seasoned acting ability. In a later scene, the act of Beagle strapping Georgia to him with a bungee cord when he picks her up for a date on his scooter is cleverly stirring. The beauty is precisely in what's not being said and the result is a film that oozes with masterful credibility.
Despite Masterson's love of 35mm, she chose to shoot HD for budgetary reasons. To soften the look, she bought 35mm prime lens which make the video appear more film-like and smooth—a look that matches the earthy tone of the film. Duncan Sheik's score is understated and wonderfully rich. Again, it emphasizes Masterson's choice not to oversell the drama with swelling strings or overstate the solitude with a lone plucking guitar. Instead, the music is warm, casual and inviting.
The bonus features include a commentary track that focuses mostly on the process of making the film, what it was like to work with the actors, and the inspiration behind the film. Unfortunately, it never delves deep into the psychology of the characters or the performances as they play out on the screen. There are three deleted scenes, and it's obvious why two of them didn't make the cut. The third, a scene between Guy and Stephanie where she explains to him that she has a family now and therefore cannot continue a relationship with him, remains questionable as to why it was cut out. Also, the DVD features three cast interviews where select cast members talk about Kristen Stewart's brilliant portrayal of Georgia. The most disappointing inclusions are the three random behind-the-scenes clips that just capture the crew working on the set as a scene plays out.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For a first-time effort, Bartok managed to bang out a delicately poignant script. Inspired by the death of his mother and her faithful encouragement for him to write, Bartok brought to life an insightful and intuitive account of girl who, despite living with a debilitating disease, manages to willfully carry on. The extent of his talents stops there, though. Being the principal architect behind this film, you would think that Bartok would bring so much more depth to the role as Guy. In contrast, all we get is a barely-there depiction of a man that is bland and colorless. Acting may be Bartok's first trade, but he's being overshadowed by the outstanding portrayals that he plays against. It seems that Bartok should stick to his newfound skill—writing.
Another downside is that The Cake Eaters has no style to speak of. There are no distinctions that would make this a classic, a cult favorite or just a entertaining film that you watch again and again. The writing, although touching, is simple and straightforward. What little color it does have is ad-libbed by Bruce Dern. The visual look is basic and betrays Masterson's inexperience. The film's modest and unpretentious presentation could benefit from a stylized look, unique camerawork or a little experimental editing. Although it has substance, due to its slow pace, clear-cut writing and humble storyline, without a little style the film seems forgettable.
My biggest issue with The Cake Eaters is the half-baked ending. Bartok sets up various subplots that introduce you to the characters and their struggles, but important questions that are crucial to development of the characters are never resolved. One example is the relationship with among the Kaminski women. Although Georgia confronts her mother and asserts herself against her, we never get to the conclusion where Violet tries to accept Georgia. Of course, we see her reluctance to do so but, we never get the chance to see if their relationship gets better. There are more examples but, I can't explain those without revealing too much about the plot.
Strikingly human, The Cake Eaters is a terrific first effort for Masterson. Of course, it's not without its flaws. But thanks to a compelling ensemble cast, you will easily forgive them to find a film that celebrates life in spite of tragedy.
Let them eat cake. Not Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Screen Media Films
• Director's Commentary
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