SPIN is in Park City, Utah, traversing snow and cutting queues to bring you reviews of the next big films (and flops) as they make their Sundance Film Festival 2014 debut.
“Are you a soldier, or are you a female soldier?” an incredulous corporal asks Private Amy Cole during one of the few tense moments in Peter Sattler’s full-length directorial debut, Camp X-Ray. Cole, a soldier stationed at Guantanamo Bay, is played by all five-feet, five-inches of Kristen Stewart, the waifish Twilight actress whose range spans from “slight discomfort” to “slightly more discomfort.” Therein lies the problem with this familiar and predictable tale of unlikely friends: Stewart is an unconvincing soldier and — as the misogynist overtones are meant to suggest emotional frailty — an even less convincing female soldier.
Cole’s unlikely friend comes in Ali Amir, a Gitmo detainee of eight years. Played by A Separation‘s award-winning Payman Maadi, Ali is an intellectual struggling to keep sane in a cell block alongside other Muslim men being held for reasons that are never explained. During Cole’s orientation, a commanding officer warns the newbies not to reveal personal information to the prisoners; this, of course, telegraphs the remaining two acts of the film. Ali, desperate for stimulation, notices the new private and plies her with incessant chatter. At first, Cole trusts her training and refuses to engage. Angered at her rebuke, Ali, who despite his university education is given to animalistic fits of rage and insubordination, hurls a cup of loose feces at Cole. He’s punished brutually. But after a hookup-gone-wrong with a fellow soldier, Cole begins to long for a connection the other jugheads can’t provide. We flash forward eight months, and the two are fierce companions — rules be damned.
Like in most relationships, an imbalance exists between how much each partner is giving or taking. Maadi imbues his character with warmth and sadness in an all-on-the-table performance that takes him to the very brink. Unfortunately, he’s acting against Kristen Stewart, a cardboard cutout in baggy fatigues. Their chemistry is hard to swallow. Why is the wise and perceptive Ali so drawn to a small-town Florida girl running away from her dad? Because she’s a woman? Because the other soldiers wouldn’t take so well to being called “Blondie”? (For the record, Stewart is brunette in the film.)
Camp X-Ray is another step away from the blockbuster fame Stewart earned in the Twilight franchise. But an overlong and predictable script doesn’t serve her well, especially played against a character as well shaded and supremely acted as Ali.