Sundance Review: 'Camp X-Ray'

“Azkaban? Is that an Arabic book?” One could be forgiven for thinking that Amy (Kristen Stewart) isn’t the best librarian in the world after giving such a response, and Ali (Peyman Moaadi) is certainly dismayed by her active disinterest. He’s been waiting for years to read the last book in the series, but no dice. What’s worse: she’s a guard at Guantanamo Bay, and he’s a detainee.

That bizarre meet-cute encapsulates the earnest strides made by Peter Sattler’s first feature, “Camp X-Ray,” to humanize both the soldiers who might go on to be involved in Abu Ghraib-like scandals and the suspected terrorists who may have been kept captive without just cause. As one character puts it: “There ain’t no ‘why’ in Army.”

When Amy arrives to Camp Delta, she doesn’t rock the boat. She makes her rounds, ensuring that detainees haven’t killed themselves or aren’t otherwise inciting trouble, and maintains a modest social presence off the clock. Sattler thrusts the audience right into the matter-of-fact procedural nature of the military -- our lead, one of few female soldiers in the barracks, instinctively lowering the toilet seat is a nice touch -- and following a few too many silent rounds, it’s unsurprising that Amy might indulge in idle chit-chat with the exceptionally sociable Ali.

While no saint, Ali stands out all too well among other anonymous, aggressive prisoners. He speaks English fairly well, went to university and is first seen returning a volume of Emily Dickinson poems before making his Hogwarts-minded pleas. Even though Amy instructs him to “cut the Hannibal Lecter sh*t” as his questioning grows increasingly personal, she can’t help but look into his files and make various inquiries, and it’s not long before Blondie (his nickname for her) is defying standard operating procedure in the name of basic human decency.

Noble? You bet. Romantic? Not quite. Sattler makes a recurring point of equating Amy’s own solitary existence with Ali’s cold cell -- because hey, it’s like they’re both trapped by this single-minded pursuit of justice -- or associating Muslim holy prayer with the all-American ritual of raising and saluting the flag. Thankfully, these two kindred spirits spark a mutual empathy which bolsters their shared scenes, meaning the two-hour-long film conversely suffers whenever Amy instead has to quietly bear the brunt of a gruff superior officer (Lane Garrison, sending off rapey vibes from the get-go, although we are spared a potentially tacky subplot; Kirby Dick’s “The Invisible War” has already proven to be a sobering document of such real-world offenses).

Moaadi was similarly angstful with his superb performance in “A Separation,” yet he is also often responsible for the film’s few moments of levity. However, Stewart is the star of the show, and for the first time since playing her daughter in “Panic Room,” the leading lady conveys the understated tenacity and vulnerability that has defined much of Jodie Foster’s career. With its painfully plain-spoken conflicts and eventually oversold gestures of kindness, “Camp X-Ray” may offer frustratingly little insight into the hazy world of wartime morality, but if nothing else, it suggests that Stewart may escape her own “Twilight”-shaped prison yet.

SCORE: 6.6