Everyone's in love with Kristen Stewart. You can't blame them. This weekend, she's the romantic heroine in two indies — Woody Allen's Café Society and Drake Doremus's Equals — and when Stewart's green eyes gaze at the camera, your heart stops.
In Allen's 1930s glitterati comedy, those eyes are warm and catlike, the look of a pet who's overfed on cream. Her Hollywood transplant Vonnie is a tanned charmer in crisp crop tops with her pick of two men: wannabe Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) or his married millionaire uncle, Phil (Steve Carell). She can't pick both, and we'd rather she have neither. But like every Woody Allen movie, the girl is the prize and he's picked the perfect trophy, no matter if she's hunched over a plate of broke Bobby's homemade spaghetti or draped in Phil's diamonds.
For Doremus's sci-fi dystopia, Stewart is scrubbed raw, almost translucent. Now, she's Nia, a cog in a sexless society where emotions are punishable by execution, which the government rebrands as a "pain-free death scenario." Everything is bleached white: the unisex suits, the walls, the lights, their brains. Even Stewart's eyes have been watered down to a mouthwash mint. We don't see a splash of red until a jumper commits suicide. "I hope they'll find someone to cover his work," shrugs her coworker (Bel Powley). But another grunt, Silas (Nicholas Hoult), spots Nia clenching her fist. He's so startled to see feelings that he's shaken awake, too.
That's Stewart: She gives people life. Café Society is her third movie with Eisenberg — they're catching up to Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy — and their pairings work because she shines so much love at this geek that we love him, too. Her love is the net that holds together last summer's gory and manic comedy-romance American Ultra, and when she beams it at someone else, like Ryan Reynolds in Adventureland, we're with Eisenberg in the darkness. Just look at Eisenberg in Café Society, shoulders stooped, pants pulled up to his armpits. (No wonder Allen loves shooting movies in the past. That's the last time his geezer fashion was hip.) Bobby's such a dweeb that he hires a call girl and then tells her he has a headache. "You have this deer-in-the-headlights quality," nods Vonnie. If she doesn't choose him, who will? Er, Blake Lively, who coos that she "find[s] Jews exotic and mysterious." This is still a Woody Allen fantasy.
Café Society is a light-fingered, backstabbing trifle. Despite the occasional sour zinger, the film is so retro golden that old-timey miners would run the reels through a sieve. Everyone's a hustler and a name-dropper, and the movie doesn't mind one bit. It's like Allen wants to redeem sin, but only if he barely has to try. As Bobby moans, "Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer" — an Allen truism, but the line is clumsy. So what if people can't commit to their spouses? So what if an old, rich man claims his right to woo a young girl? Life is for living, and we all have failings to forgive. After they bushwhack past jealousy, Stewart and Eisenberg look at each other with absolution. Maybe their characters will get it better in their next reincarnation — and if they don't, the actors themselves are guaranteed a fourth attempt.
The stakes are higher for Equals's Nicholas Hoult. His illustrator, Silas, lives in a city that's calm and pitiless. Imagine a yoga studio that arrests slobs. He and his acquaintances — friends are illegal — pace the clean, stone streets with their hands at their sides. For lunch, a wall kiosk pushes out plates of baby corn. Monstrous. In this post-bomb society, there's no chitchat, no laughing, and definitely no sex. Instead, women are summoned for "conception duty," just another work excuse like getting called to a jury. To the overlords, people we never see, we're left to imagine that this medicated monotony is their way of keeping the peace. Call it mandatory zen. Or call it mass depression, the feeling of having no feelings, except the blankness of wondering what the point of another tomorrow is.
When Silas and Nia really see each other for the first time, Doremus floods their world with oranges and sea greens, swoony, childish colors that light up behind their heads when they kiss. He drags out the slow build-up to that kiss. We're restless because they're not doing anything more interesting than what we've seen in a hundred romances. The difference is that their characters are doing everything for the first time: holding hands, opening up, caring about another person. Doremus keeps the focus on their eyes and lips. Anything past their cheekbones is a blur. The irony is, once a person starts to care, they have to bury their happiness to stay alive. That first feeling of truth leads to a hundred lies, a domino effect that's guaranteed to end in disaster. When Silas joins a secret support group, headed by Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver, love — and fear — has pushed him to connect with strangers.
It's all a little slow and stoic and familiar. Doremus and cowriter Nathan Parker could squeeze a second subplot into the running time. (More Bel Powley, please! In everything!) We thaw toward Equals whenever Hoult scoops Stewart into his arms for a puppyish hug. Once again, she's the rope that keeps us connected to the director's dream. Like Silas, we study her face for clues. Stewart's pulled off an actor's greatest trick: Her job is make-believe, but those green eyes swear that she's telling the truth.