Mary Stuart Masterson brings the same directness and vulnerability that imbue her acting to her quietly impressive directorial debut, “Cake Eaters,” transforming tyro scripter Jayce Bartok’s somewhat shopworn, sentimental family drama into a vibrant, unpretentious small-town tale. Rural upstate New York settings have a homey look that adds greatly to pic’s unforced authenticity, as does thesping by Aaron Stanford, Bruce Dern and Elizabeth Ashley. A dynamite perf by Kristen Stewart in a potentially hokey, girl-with-a-disease role further destroys the cliches. In the absence of A-list players, though, tasty but understated “Cake” may wind up cable fare.
Easy (Dern), the local butcher, recently lost his wife to cancer and lives with his not-too-bright-seeming son, Beagle (Stanford). As pic opens, in stilted, play-like fashion, Easy’s older son Guy (writer Bartok) returns unannounced after three years in the Big Apple trying to become a rock star. Beagle, who tended their mother throughout her long illness, cannot forgive Guy for abandoning her.
Meanwhile, on the posh side of town, Georgia (Stewart), a 15-year-old beauty with Friedriech’s Ataxia, a degenerative nervous disease, has come to terms with her recalcitrant body and imminent mortality but is having trouble coping with teen problems. Impatient with her mother’s overprotectiveness and denial-based New Wave therapies, Georgia often takes refuge with her free-thinking grandma Marge (Ashley).
When Georgia meets Beagle at a flea market, his matter-of-fact acceptance of her physical handicap (she shakes and cannot walk unassisted) mark him as her chosen initiator into the mysteries of sex. But in Beagle’s gentle awkwardness, Georgia gets far more than she bargained for.
Pic also pairs members of the older generation in a longtime, class-crossed extramarital affair. Dern and Ashley effortlessly convey a wealth of comfortable intimacy and sexual chemistry.
Masterson downplays script’s overly explicit, theater-derived exposition in favor of expressive non-verbal exchanges that function differently within the two families. Whereas Easy and his sons are reluctant to bring their problems out into the open, Marge and her brood are stuck in glib social generalities.
Masterson’s ability to deeply embed her characters in a specific place, with its flea markets, barns, weather-beaten houses and well maintained mansions (lensed to human scale, with no colorful “location” backdrops or panoramic sweeps by helmer’s brother Peter) renders them uniquely three-dimensional.
Tech credits are pro without belying pic’s rustic simplicity. Guitar-solo score, however, occasionally feels a bit undernourished.