In The Cake Eaters, first-time filmmaker Mary Stuart Masterson and screenwriter Jayce Bartok attempt to pack a miniseries's worth of familial drama into an 85-minute running time. But while Masterson's low-key direction keeps the whole thing from feeling too overstuffed, it also blunts the film's dramatic impact, so that when she tries to bring her various narrative strands to a crisis, her characters have been too thinly sketched for the incidents to offer much in the way of emotional resonance. A story of two families living in a small town in upstate New York, the film trots out its gallery of rural grotesques with deliberate non-emphasis, defining each by a few quickly mapped-out quirks, a slowly developing backstory, and a varying degree of difficulty in articulating their inner lives.
This last quality is exemplified by one of the film's central characters, the unfortunately named Beagle (Aaron Stamford), a twentysomething high school cafeteria worker and an all-around dullard. In the film's first scene, in which Beagle talks with his father (Bruce Dern) over breakfast, Masterson establishes her program of spurious naturalism that defines much of the film's one-on-one interactions. As the men discuss Shredded Wheat, they speak in clipped, tentative phrases that register principally as self-conscious bits of “acting,” studied attempts at casualness that get tripped up on Bartok's calculatedly offbeat dialogue.
Unfortunately, Masterson continues this approach throughout much of the rest of the film, particularly in those increasingly frequent scenes where Beagle takes center stage. Although plotlines involving marital infidelity, filial resentment, and child exploitation show up periodically and are dealt with summarily, the movie's focus quickly switches to the uncomfortably statutory relationship between the cafeteria worker and Georgia (Kristen Stewart), a 15-year-old suffering from a terminal degenerative muscle condition who wants to have sex before she dies. Since her chances of getting laid are limited—she claims that people view her as a “freak”—she pins her hopes on Beagle and sets about seducing him. Perhaps because she plays about the only person in the film who seems to know exactly what she wants, Stewart carves out a far more successful characterization than the other actors, establishing due authority, then hinting at the hurt underneath.
But just as dopey Beagle seems a poorly suited partner for the pretty, intelligent Georgia, so too is Stamford's thesping overmatched by Stewart's and this discrepancy in acting chops sinks a handful of scenes that unfold with considerably more sensitivity than anything else in the film. As long as their tryst is imagined as a one-time-only event, the plotline remains compelling, if a little creepy, but when, in the penultimate scene, the film hints at a lasting relationship between the two ill-fitted lovers, Masterson and Bartok finally lose their tenuous hold on their material, attempting to affix a conventional conclusion to a pointedly unconventional story.
From there, it only remains to bring the rest of the familial plotlines to a close, which the director does with a perfunctory reconciliation that seems no less tacked on for its provisional nature. Working with a single through line of interest, Bartok may have been wise to trim the extraneous material and focus on the meaty stuff, but given how Masterson manages to botch even the one narrative strand of any promise, it probably wouldn't have made too much of a difference.