Leighton Meester Still Isn’t a Movie Star. She’s More Interesting That Way

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Leighton Meester Still Isn’t a Movie Star. She’s More Interesting That Way

Leighton Meester has been a child model, a teen actor, a singer-songwriter and, most famously, the dark-haired Veronica figure to Blake Lively’s blonder Betty type on Gossip Girl. Or at least, that’s my understanding; I’ve only seen a couple episodes of that CW phenom. But I’m fascinated by Meester anyway, because despite the trappings of a pretty typical starlet career, there’s something a little spiky and a little guarded about her movie characters. She hasn’t become a major movie star, and in a way that seems to suit her—it gives her film acting a peculiar tension.

The new Netflix release The Weekend Away is Meester’s first big movie role in years; her last couple cast her as The Girl in male-driven crime-drama obscurities like Semper Fi and By the Gun. Those came out three and eight years ago, respectively, and she’s been busy with her TV comedy Single Parents (as well as having a second child) since then. The Weekend Away is on the TV-movie end of the Netflix Original scale: Flat and washed out, underpopulated, occasionally very silly. It’s no Girl on the Train, nevermind Gone Girl; call it Girl near a Beach. Before its plotting goes full nonsense, Meester dedicates herself to the single interesting hook the movie has going for it. She plays Beth, a new parent reuniting with a college bestie for a getaway in Croatia, away from her husband and baby in London. Tentative and slightly awkward at the invitation to have some fun, Beth exudes practicality: Little makeup; utilitarian, pumping-friendly bra; mom jeans. She loves Kate (Christina Wolfe) but doesn’t much relate to her feckless carousing anymore. She isn’t quite sure what she’s doing there, apart from atoning for neglect of their friendship. When Kate disappears, the atonement grows, as Beth is forced to extend her vacation indefinitely to solve the mystery.

Tenuous, waning friendships are at the heart of Meester’s most notable films. Her best in a walk is Life Partners, a friend-com where she plays a listless twentysomething fearful of losing her best friend (Gillian Jacobs) to a promising career and relationship. It’s in the vein of Bridesmaids or Frances Ha, and if its rhythms are a little sitcommier, it’s still a funny and insightful portrait of intense friendship and passive-aggressive slights. Meester’s probable most-seen starring role is on the shlockier end of this uncomfortable, incompatible closeness: The Roommate, where she plays the psychotic stalker in a college-set Single White Female knockoff. The Roommate is amusing in part because Meester’s psycho character is, by most reasonable terms, a nicer and more interesting weirdo than the normie she’s obsessed with; Life Partners is funny in part because of her character’s free-floating disdain for everyone except her one close friend.

Even outside of fractured female friendships, she often plays characters who stand apart—not because of an innate specialness, but a sense that they don’t know quite how to relate to people normally. This takes on disparate forms: In the little-seen indie drama Like Sunday, Like Rain, she babysits/mentors a child prodigy; in the Adam Sandler flop That’s My Boy, she fucks her brother. Even when she’s a (normal, non-incestuous) love interest, there’s something solitary about her. In By the Gun, she essentially falls in love with the would-be gangster hero out of boredom. Usually this indicates a character who exists only at the convenience or pleasure of the male lead (and that is certainly the case in By the Gun), yet Meester projects a solitary prickliness, even when she’s supposed to be in love.

Beth, her Weekend Away character, isn’t particularly good at being alone. She’s not a crack sleuth, she keeps bumming a ride from a friendly taxi driver and, as the plot thickens, she reacts with more whiny frustration than grit. That’s understandable, given how many flat-footed attempts the movie makes to pull the rug out from under her; there simply aren’t enough interesting characters to provide a formidable roster of suspects, which doesn’t stop the movie from neglecting Beth’s psychology, emphasizing her immediate reactions rather than what’s going on in her head. Dopey as The Weekend Away is, Meester’s bumbling does fit her character: Her marriage is in a rut and her close friendship has pulled apart. Sometimes Beth seems uncomfortable even in her own company, and not out of self-loathing. It’s like she isn’t sure what to say to herself.

I have no idea what Meester’s personal or professional relationships are like, apart from the apparent cuteness of her having found a life partner in fellow teen-soap refugee Adam Brody, and the intriguing biographical detail that she was born while her parents were serving jail time. Even ignoring any implications of either a TV-heartthrob Hollywood bubble or a certain in-born pre-stardom grit, though, Meester has an uneasy mix of glamour and grit—she’s not unconvincing in By the Gun!—that can make her a compelling not-quite-star. While they haven’t worked together outside Gossip Girl, Meester still feels yoked together with her former co-star Lively, in part because they appear to share a taste for movies with grounded and/or grown-up concerns. Surely they both could have pursued a line in superhero love-interest work (and Lively did star alongside future husband Ryan Reynolds in Green Lantern). Instead, as tentpole movies have gotten bigger, they’ve both favored crime thrillers, romantic dramas and other more old-fashioned non-franchise stuff that used to be multiplex fodder (and now thrives, or at least exists, on Netflix).

Lively has been more successful in this regard; her comic thriller A Simple Favor is off-kilter and surprising mom noir in all the ways that The Weekend Away is not. Meester arrives vanity-free and ready to embody the weariness and confusion of new motherhood, and the movie gives her simple-minded plot mechanics that reshape her anguish into a kind of generic peril. So Meester’s movie career keeps hanging back, as she stays busy (a recurring role on How I Met Your Father looms) without relentlessly pursuing stardom. Even if that’s by design, a better movie than The Weekend Away could really take advantage of Meester’s seeming ambivalence. It would require a star vehicle with a similar level of discomfort over the attention afforded star vehicles—something more interested in how and why she bristles on screen, rather than what she’s bristling over.

Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.

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