There are many ways to tell if you've become a popular actress. Your name appears above the title on the poster. You're on the covers of magazines. You get an Oscar nomination. Those are all pretty great things. Then, there are those other ways of finding out that you're popular. These are a lot less fun, such as the paparazzi standing outside your house in the hope that they can snap a picture of you in your sweatpants. Today, Jennifer Lawrence has achieved another of the more dubious distinctions of the newly famous: She's starring in a crappy horror film that nobody knows what she's doing in.
House at the End of the Street is now out in theaters, and it features Lawrence as a young woman who moves to a small town with her divorced mom (Elisabeth Shue), only to fall for a cute boy (Max Thieriot) who, bummer, is the only surviving member of his family after his sister killed his parents and then drowned herself. The film's distributor, Relativity, held off screening the movie until last night, and while I haven't seen it, I trust The Hollywood Reporter's assessment of this generic-sounding horror flick, right down to its depiction of Lawrence's character: "The classic modern horror heroine, she's an independent-minded, fearless, whip-smart high-schooler who looks sizzling in a tank top." (That could have fit Elizabeth Olsen in Silent House as well. C'mon, ladies—if you're going to do battle with the forces of evil, put on a sweater.)
Lawrence's involvement with House at the End of the Street wouldn't have seemed that strange a few years ago. That was before she was in Winter's Bone, X-Men: First Class, and The Hunger Games. That was back when she was pre-famous. And, in fact, House was filmed back in 2010, right around the time that First Class was shooting and long before she was cast in The Hunger Games. Only now is it coming out, hoping to capitalize on the fact that Relativity hit the gold mine by landing her in the first place. She won't be doing a movie like this again any time soon. She doesn't need to—she's too popular and too good.
This is pretty impressive considering that she's 22 and her acting career got started only about six years ago. At first, she was doing one-off TV spots, but then she landed a role on The Bill Engvall Show, the TBS sitcom that now has another distinction beyond the fact that it's a show from one of those Blue Collar Comedy guys. But soon she was cast in indie dramas like Garden Party and The Burning Plain, paving the way for Winter's Bone, the sort of breakout role that's all the more exciting because, as the tough, uneducated backwoods gal Dee, a lot of people probably wondered how much she and the character were exactly the same. The answer is "not so much": She's been acting since she was a kid, traveling to New York as a teen to meet with modeling agencies. (Her mother went with her. "We went to get this out of her system," she later explained. It didn't work.) But throughout her brief career, Lawrence has never come across as one of those robotic "young actors." It's not just that she has personality—she's expressive without making you feel like she's "emoting" all the time.
Despite her acclaim in Winter's Bone, her path to stardom hasn't led to an unbroken string of great performances. For as good as she is in her small but crucial part as the third wheel in Like Crazy, playing the good girl that Anton Yelchin would be stupid to let get away, she's rather drab in The Beaver, playing the good girl that Anton Yelchin would be stupid to let get away. But unlike Kristen Stewart, another young actress propelled to super-stardom, Lawrence's transition to big movies hasn't lobotomized her. She's had her stumbles. In X-Men: First Class, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy do the heavy lifting, which allows Lawrence to ease her way into the role of Mystique. That's a good thing since her attempts at sexy vulnerability feel a bit forced—it's her first major role where you actually see her trying.
But when it really mattered—when she had to carry a movie all by herself—she was much better. Playing Katniss in The Hunger Games, she returned to the same grittiness that propelled her in Winter's Bone. What's appealing about the character isn't that she's good with a bow and arrow; it's that she's scared and too young to take on the type of horrific task that's been laid out in front of her. And yet she finds a way to be brave anyway. When Lawrence is at her best, she plays characters who have to grow up too fast in order to survive, whether it's because of a jerk who won't treat her right in Like Crazy or when a bunch of people are trying to kill her in The Hunger Games. Even in House at the End of the Street, which has gotten pretty dismissive reviews, Lawrence has been singled out for being smarter than the role requires. She's got too much life behind her eyes to stay hemmed in by mediocre genre stuff.
And she's only getting better. In late November, she'll be appearing in Silver Linings Playbook, the new movie from David O. Russell that just won the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival. (Previous winners include American Beauty and The King's Speech.) The film stars Bradley Cooper as a mentally imbalanced man, but it's Lawrence who steals the movie as a depressed widow who becomes his unlikely friend and potential love interest. Up to this point, Lawrence has mostly played young women thrust into adulthood. In Silver Linings Playbook, she's a grownup—and a decidedly miserable, unpleasant one at that. It's the first time on film that she's been allowed to be funny, and she's terrific at it, in part because all the laughs are shrouded in the character's sadness. Whether in Winter's Bone or Silver Linings Playbook, the feelings are all there on the surface, but never before has she seemed so comfortable playing a complicated, sometimes exasperating individual. Pretty soon you're not going to remember that Jennifer Lawrence had anything to do with House at the End of the Street. With any luck, you've already forgotten.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.