Friedrich's ataxia, a progressive neurological disease that causes loss of muscle control, has entered the spotlight of the independent film world.
The Cake Eaters features as one of its central characters 16-year-old Georgia, who has Friedrich's ataxia. She is portrayed brilliantly by the young actress Kristen Stewart, who captures the disease's characteristic rag-doll weakness and awkward gait while projecting a smoldering adolescent sexuality. First-time director Mary Stuart Masterson, best known for her nuanced acting in Fried Green Tomatoes and Benny and Joon, videotaped interviews with real teenagers with Friedrich's ataxia to help prepare Stewart for the role.
But this slow moving and insightful film refuses to buy into the after-school special narrative of the heroic teen who overcomes her disability. Georgia's disability will not be overcome. The disease will persist until, as she puts it, my heart gives out, and I don't know when that will be. And Georgia is not always heroic. Her quest to seduce Beagle, a school cafeteria worker played with depth and intelligence by Aaron Stanford, at first barely acknowledges his humanity. She wants to know what sex is like, and he is the means to that end.
Though Georgia is the most memorable character, the film spotlights the struggles of two families on either side of the class divide in a small town in the Catskill Mountains. As the privileged Georgia and working-class Beagle begin a relationship, Beagle's newly widowed father Easy (played by Bruce Dern) tries to figure out the meaning of his affair with Georgia's grandmother Marg (the feisty Elizabeth Ashley). Meanwhile, Beagle's older brother returns from a failed music career in New York City, having missed his mother's funeral. Each subplot revolves around two compelling themes: sex as a means to ward off death and loss, and the honorable burden of caretaking versus the guilty freedom of refusing to take care.
The Cake Eaters has been touring the film festival circuit, with critically acclaimed screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival, the Woodstock Film Festival, and Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival; additional screenings are scheduled at the Florida Film Festival, the California Independent Film Festival, the Independent Film Festival of Boston, the Newport (R.I.) International Film Festival, and elsewhere. Let's hope this treasure of a film gets wider distribution, so it can be appreciated by audiences nationwide.