In February 2011, smack dab in the middle of Gossip Girl season 4, Leighton Meester traded in Blair Waldorf’s Upper East Side penthouse for an L.A. dorm room in The Roommate. In doing so, she made an otherwise truly mediocre movie into something worth watching.
I write about a lot of critically panned but underrated movies (see: Jennifer’s Body, Josie and The Pussycats, and Twilight), but The Roommate is not one of them. The plotting is weak, the dialogue stale, the boys — okay, the boys are hot, hello Cam Gigandet — and the messaging about mental illness is problematic at best. But it is compulsively watchable, and finally on Netflix, which these days is a good enough reason to tune in.
I came away from my latest viewing completely blown away by Meester’s performance
It starts with her eyes. As Blair Waldorf, they crackled with wit and devilish plots, revealing a sharp intelligence that she wields like a bejeweled but lethal dagger to cut down her enemies. But as Rebecca, they’re either chillingly blank or intensely smoldering; she toggles between the two in the span of a nano-second. Even her smile, which can light up her face in open sweetness, has violence bubbling underneath.
Though she holds the titular role, we don’t actually meet Meester’s character until nearly eight minutes into the movie. We arrive at the hilariously-named ULA with Sarah (Minka Kelly, Meester’s celebrity doppelganger, who makes the most out of a thin role), a freshman from Des Moines who dreams of becoming a fashion designer. With the wounds of her breakup still raw (her high school boyfriend, played by Matt Lanter, reneged on their pact to go to college together when he got into Brown), Sarah is vulnerable and in need of a friend.
Enter Rebecca, a Beverly Hills native with a cherry red car and a sad, artistic streak who happens to be Sarah’s roommate. But as they grow closer, Rebecca gets increasingly jealous of anyone in Sarah’s orbit, and soon enough, things turn violent. What starts with simple threats escalates into Rebecca cornering Sarah’s friend Tracy in the shower, throwing her to the floor and ripping her belly button ring out as a warning to stay away. When Sarah suggests she might move out of the dorm into her designer friend Irene’s spare downtown L.A. room, Rebecca throws their kitten Cuddles in the dryer (yes, this movie fucks with cats). When a professor (Billy Zane) comes on to Sarah, Rebecca slinks into his office and seduces him, only to record herself describing the encounter as a sexual assault to have him fired.
It’s a role that Meester could have coasted through. But she didn’t. Instead, she gives depth to a shallowly-drawn character. Through her performance, we see beyond the crazy rich girl stalker trope (directed by Christian E. Christiansen, the movie is a loose remake of 1992’s Single White Female), and into the troubled past of a young woman who is lonely and alienated, reaching out in the only way she can. Her untreated mental illness, not addressed until the final moments of the movie, only exacerbates these feelings.
Meester consulted with doctors to get a handle on what Rebecca’s illness (loosely diagnosed in the film as either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder) might mean for her. “People who have these disorders are not violent all the time. In fact, they’re not usually violent, but when they are they’re horribly violent and they take things to the extreme,” she said in a 2011 interview.
The Roommate is mostly focused on the wild excesses that Rebecca is capable of. But the most interesting parts of Meester’s performance take place in those grey areas before the violence takes hold.
My favourite scene is probably Rebecca’s most quiet aggression of all. With Sarah on a date with Stephen (Gigandet) a frat boy with a heart of gold, she starts calling her incessantly, fretting over her lack of control. When the two lovers return to the dorm, Rebecca is waiting, still and furious, in the hall. “I kept calling and calling,” she says, and when Sarah tries to explain, interrupts her with a sneer: “I’m going to bed now — I’m glad you’re okay.” Suddenly, what could have been a totally innocuous moment is a viscerally gripping one, hinging on Meester’s line delivery and inflection — and of course, her eyes, telegraphing betrayal, fury and weariness all at once.
It’s a scene that shows the range of an actor who, in a better movie, could have broken out of the “former Gossip Girl star” mold Hollywood had carved out for her. But though Meester was singled out by critics as a positive, the film overall was thrown onto the trash heap of bad remakes, and her performance forgotten. Do yourself a favour and revisit it. If nothing else, it might throw your own nightmare quarantine roommate situation into perspective.