Every so often a lovely young actress comes out of nowhere to nail a lead role, displaying an intelligence that trumps her beauty, and a depth of emotion that’s uncanny for her age. In 2009, it was Carey Mulligan sliding into the arms of a duplicitous older man in An Education. In 2010, it was Jennifer Lawrence penetrating an Ozark underworld in Winter’s Bone. This year, the breakout performance belongs to Elizabeth Olsen, who bares her body and soul as a recovering cult victim in Martha Marcy May Marlene.
In Olsen’s case, the heat of the spotlight is just catching up to her fame by association, as the kid sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Yes, those Olsens. Seeing the three of them together doesn’t quite compute. Mary-Kate and Ashley, 25-year-old fraternal twins, traffic in pure, pharmaceutical-grade celebrity, uncut by any visible talent aside from merchandising their bubble-blond image. As child stars who were breast-fed by showbiz at the age of nine months (starting out as babies on Full House), they parlayed their TV careers into a wildly successful fashion business that made them super-rich, while battling the tabloids over scandals involving anorexia, alleged drug use and Mary-Kate’s mysterious involvement with actor Heath Ledger at the time of his fatal overdose.
By contrast, Elizabeth—Lizzie to her friends—is a 22-year-old theatre major at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts who has trained with its Atlantic Theater Co., studied at the Moscow Art Theatre School, and is now a credible Oscar contender for Martha Marcy May Marlene. It’s one of a string of movies she filmed while taking a year off school. She made her screen debut as Jane Fonda’s granddaughter in Bruce Beresford’s Peace, Love and Misunderstanding; she worked with Robert De Niro and Sigourney Weaver in the supernatural thriller Red Lights, and joined Zack Efron and Josh Radnor in the college comedy Liberal Arts. “She’s going to get every role she goes for,” Beresford told the New York Times, comparing her to Cate Blanchett, whom he cast in Paradise Road, her first major screen role.
In Martha Marcy May Marlene, Olsen’s mercurial character shows as many facets as there are names in the title. She plays Martha, who escapes a cult-like farm community in the Catskills to seek refuge with her estranged sister (Sarah Paulson) and new husband (Hugh Dancy) at their lakeside cottage in Connecticut. Haunted by traumatic memories of the cult, yet still in the thrall of its utopian ideals, Martha is without boundaries. Blithely making herself at home, she shocks her hosts by skinny dipping in broad daylight and crawling into their bed while they’re making love.
As Martha tries to reassemble her shattered identity, flashbacks show her being seduced by the cult, and falling under the spell of its polyamorous leader—played with chilling menace by John Hawkes (the violent meth addict in Winter’s Bone)—who rechristens her Marcy May. We can still feel his grip on her tender psyche even when he’s miles away.
What’s intriguing about Olsen is how she conveys fragile innocence and dark intent in the same breath, especially in the scenes of Martha subverting the bourgeois complacency of her sister’s marriage. For Sean Durkin, the U.S. writer-director of this fiercely independent first feature, she was an obvious choice from the word go. “I just sensed it was all there when we first met,” he says. “I could picture her walking down a driveway, picking up a rock and shattering a window—as someone who could carry that boiled-up anger but also have the strength to let it fly.”
After being anointed the It Girl at one festival after another (Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, New York), this Olsen, unlike her sisters, seems unfazed by celebrity. Sure, she’s about to co-star with Dakota Fanning in Very Good Girls, as high-school grads trying to lose their virginity. But, she says, “I’m not interested in instant gratification;” she longs for a meaty stage role, such as Hamlet’s Ophelia. Olsen remains close to her sisters, who advised her to “be herself” as her career takes off—not that they’re in any position to tell her how to act.
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