Kristen Stewart plays moody-teen roles with a particular melancholy that’s won her fame, fortune and a posse of paparazzi trailing her every move.
In The Yellow Handkerchief, a new indie film in limited release, Stewart brings her brand of pretty-girl malaise to the role of Martine, a lonely 15-year-old in a small Louisiana town. Looking for attention and adventure, she hits the road with local misfit Gordy (Eddie Redmayne) and the weathered Brett Hanson (William Hurt), who’s fresh out of jail after a six-year sentence. Making their way through post-Katrina bayous in a roomy convertible, the three strangers start to do some team-building, through both shared challenges (monsoon conditions, sexual indiscretion and a rowdy, fight-picking couple are but a few of their hurdles) and the slow telling of Brett’s life story.
As Brett recounts his trials and tribulations in romance, Gordy and Martine stop pouting long enough to lose themselves in the tragic love story that unfolds throughout the drive. The tale of pain and heartbreak reveals itself through elegantly interwoven flashbacks, drawing the trio together through both exposition and self-discovery. Meanwhile, while Brett’s trudging down memory lane, the kiddies enjoy a budding (if awkward) relationship of their own.
Lacking any hint of pretension, The Yellow Handkerchief also revels in its setting, which features wide stretches of marshland and the details of small, Southern pit-stops. Director Udayan Prasad makes the most of exceptional cinematography, using both sweeping shots and subtle but unmistakable juxtapositions among his rag-tag travelers. The best of these moments glide between Brett and Martine, in which the aging ex-con’s quiet acceptance of his lot contrasts with the teen’s volatilty that alternately screams, “want me!” and “take care of me!” The overall effect is a seamless seduction, drawing us into the film, its landscape and its characters — even if they take turns behaving badly.
Twilight fans will undoubtedly see strains of Stewart’s performance as Bella Swan, the tortured teen who lives in the Most Boring Town on Earth. Yet, the actress’s portrayal of Handkerchief’s Martine is more raw, burning with need and hormones and hurt and precociousness that make the character a loose canon, showing off her ballet legs here and raging against an admirer there. Also unlike the glossy vampire franchise, Stewart’s prettiness is striking in its departure from that of the other characters. It’s not that her co-stars don’t have their physical assets, it’s just that her radiance is tough to suppress — even on a hot, sweaty road trip that somehow has zero effect on her hair, no matter how much rain it soaks up.
The Yellow Handkerchief is a small film that glitters with nuance. Its understated style goes a long way, revealing a story that’s bigger, and more affecting, than the sum of its parts.