While I was watching the remake of Flatliners collapse into a pile of goo, I realized that Ellen Page is stuck. It’s not just this film, of course; I could imagine the current supernatural thriller looking good on paper. However, it’s been a while since I’ve been at all satisfied with what she’s doing. Let’s look back on her career and see what we can find.
She was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1987 as Ellen Philpotts-Page, and indeed she was billed under that name in Pit Pony, a Canadian TV movie and spinoff series, in which she played the protagonist’s 10-year-old sister. She dropped the “Philpotts” while she was playing a steady stream of supporting roles in low-budget Canadian projects, as well as the lead role in a direct-to-video kids’ movie called I Downloaded a Ghost. You figure any movie with that title from 2004 would look dated now, but even so, oof:
It wasn’t until the following year that she suddenly morphed into the actress we know in Hard Candy. Page would have been 17 at the time the movie was shot, but her 5’1″ frame and her face made her look like the 14-year-old girl in that film who dangles herself as bait to entrap Patrick Wilson’s child molester. It set the tone for the next few years, as she made hay playing the girl who’s smarter than the grown-ups in the room and knows it. She did it to devastating effect in Juno, which gave her her first exposure to a wide audience and an Oscar nomination. In the aftermath of that, it seemed she could do no wrong. She smoothly blended into a tight ensemble as Dennis Quaid’s teenage daughter in the literary comedy Smart People and held together a bunch of famous names as the headliner in Whip It, as a small-town Texas girl who can’t find a place until she discovers roller derby. She followed up those small-scale movies with Inception, a blockbuster that also won critical acclaim. She did well as a stand-in for the audience being introduced to Christopher Nolan’s fantasy world, but she was even better in Super, a superhero comedy that suffered from being released in the wake of the similar Kick-Ass, but boasted her wild performance as a clerk whose superhero fantasy only unleashes her inner psychopath. Her supporting performance in the overlooked thriller The East outstripped Brit Marling’s lead performance, creating a tragic figure whose dedication to ecoterrorism leads to tragedy for her entire family.
Of course, in movies and other areas of life, the precocious-kid act can only be kept up for so long. Page wasn’t at fault for being wasted in X-Men: Days of Future Past, and it was probably inevitable that she’d want to play characters who are less sure of themselves than Juno MacGuff, but it came with diminishing returns. She did that indistinctly in one of Lynn Shelton’s lesser movies in Touchy Feely, and her turn as a fiercely protective older sister to Evan Rachel Wood in the apocalyptic drama Into the Forest was hampered by the indifferent filmmaking, which also took down the oppressively dull gay-rights biopic Freeheld, a project she spent years trying to bring to the screen. She did well in Tallulah as a homeless woman who kidnaps a baby from an uncaring rich housewife, but that movie was sabotaged by writer-director Sian Heder and her plot’s melodramatic turns.
In the middle of all that, Page came out as gay. It seems sadly likely that, as she alleges, she might have been cut out of consideration from some heterosexual roles because of that. Nevertheless, while the preceding paragraph doesn’t contain any outright disasters, it’s still quite far from a sparkling résumé. Lately, she’s poured her energy into Gaycation, an ongoing docuseries in which she and her gay friend Ian Daniel explore LGBT subcultures around the world. It’s more than a worthy enterprise, to be sure, and her star power is probably the reason why it exists, but we’re in danger of forgetting how good she is at acting.
It’s easy to say that Page should look at Kristen Stewart, another star who started out with a teen following, came out as LGBT, and now is building one of cinema’s most fascinating acting careers, partly by leveraging her sexual ambiguity. However, I think a better comparison might be Aubrey Plaza, who started out specializing in playing the sarcastic girl who hates everything and has since branched out from there. Page is a better actor than Plaza, and she could have easily played the damaged girl putting up a front in Safety Not Guaranteed or the crazed stalker in Ingrid Goes West. Page’s sense of timing is laser-accurate, and she demonstrates her flair for silliness and physical comedy even in a True Detective parody that’s basically a bunch of short jokes:
Does Ellen Page simply need to lighten up? It sounds reductive and sexist, and I think that half the actors I see need to do more comedy, but what if the solution is as simple as that? Or maybe it’s as simple as her picking better material, which is the problem with most stars whose careers have gone down the wrong path, but it’s boring to keep saying that. Anyway, something’s not working. She does have the time and the talent to fix this, and succeeding would be good for far more than just her. Let’s hope she figures it out.