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Actor and musician Zooey Deschanel. ((Merge Records))

Zooey Deschanel has eyes like marbles – not just any marbles, but turquoise clearie shooters. When she’s gazing at you from a movie screen, those eyes are as big as bowling balls, and hit you with a similar wallop. It’s likely that at some point, you’ve found yourself mesmerized by that stare. It’s also likely that you couldn’t put a name to the face.

She was the flighty older sister in Almost Famous (2000), the wistful shopgirl who fell for man-child Will Ferrell in Elf (2003) and the best thing about the execrable romantic comedy Failure to Launch (2006), in which she played Sarah Jessica Parker’s misanthropic roommate. Over the years, Zooey (pronounced like Zoe) has been dubbed an "It Girl" by everyone from Seventeen to Entertainment Weekly to, most recently, BlackBook.

 

Some might claim that Deschanel has never fulfilled her potential, but I’d argue that she has carved out a sweet little niche for herself.

Celebrated by indie film fans and casting directors looking to fill their cute-and-quirky quota, Deschanel has been on the verge of her big breakthrough every year for the last decade. She seems to be in a perpetual state of almost famous. Some might claim that she has never fulfilled her potential, but I’d argue that she has carved out a sweet little niche for herself.

Her latest role is in The Go-Getter (which opens June 6), a meandering, low-budget affair about 20-somethings who converse in existential non sequiturs over a melancholic indie-rock soundtrack. Lank-haired Lou Pucci (Thumbsucker) plays a troubled dude who steals a car and takes off on an interstate road trip to find his estranged brother. He meets a gaggle of weirdos over the course of his quest, including Kate (Deschanel) — the owner of said vehicle.

Like most of her roles, her part in The Go-Getter is the sort of female character that tends to go over like gangbusters at the Sundance Film Festival, where The Go-Getter screened in 2007. As an archetype, the Sundance Girl is rarely a conventional knockout; she’s pretty in a way that’s just off kilter. She is young and often ambivalent toward adulthood. She is a misfit, or at least misunderstood. She’s hyperverbal by nature, and frequently given to acerbic put-downs. She likes music (usually obscure indie artists or quirky retro acts) and has strange hobbies.

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Kate (Deschanel, right) confronts Mercer (Lou Taylor Pucci), the man who stole her car, in the film The Go-Getter. ((Peace Arch Films))

A number of actresses regularly inhabit such roles — Winona Ryder and Claire Danes come to mind. But few have done it as consistently — and as consistently well — as Deschanel. She can be jaded and brittle, like the gum-snapping chain-store cashier in The Good Girl, or wound up and vulnerable, as in her revelatory turn in David Gordon Green’s bruised romance All the Real Girls. Although they’re usually bemused observers of life, Deschanel’s characters are grounded; even at their weirdest, they come across as the only person in the room with half a clue.

Deschanel comes from a Hollywood clan: her dad is a cinematographer, her mom’s an actor and older sister Emily plays the lead on FOX series Bones. Zooey followed her father on location shoots that took them everywhere from the Seychelles to Yugoslavia. Zooey’s peripatetic childhood, combined with a stint in a Los Angeles performing arts high school as a teen, resulted in a curious combo: she has a keen sense of the business, but can’t quite play along.

Deschanel has managed to stay low-key, keeping her personal life out of the tabloids; she’s rarely spotted on the party circuit. Unlike many of her peers, Deschanel’s weirdness doesn’t seem like a put-on or a self-protective veneer. Her acting approach seems almost anti-Method, insofar as her roles are often extensions of the character she plays in real life. This may be a question of typecasting. Deschanel has talked in the past about studios seeking out "Zooey Deschanel types," which I would describe as "mordant, pseudo-goth second bananas." Her second bananas often steal shared scenes from the leads, as in the case of The Good Girl’s caustic Cheryl, who outshone Jennifer Aniston every time Deschanel cracked wise. Some actors are praised for their chameleonic qualities, their ability to effortlessly morph into a broad range of characters. In Deschanel’s case, it’s almost the opposite; what makes her so appealing is that she’s so reliably Zooey.

Without a script, Deschanel is still charming, though remarkably awkward. In interviews, she often explodes in nervous laughter and approaches the trite inquisitions of late-night talk shows as though they are real conversations. She knows she’s supposed to display her idiosyncrasies like shiny gifts, but fumbles when it comes to format. In a memorable appearance on Late Night with David Letterman early in her career, a breathless Deschanel anxiously rubbed her hands on her skirt, snorted when Letterman asked about her hobbies and stuttered through descriptions of making colour Xeroxes and "cut[ting] out pictures of Liza Minnelli and her husband."

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Deschanel, right, recently formed the duo She & Him with singer-songwriter M. Ward. ((Merge Records) )

Not all her hobbies are as outlandish; for example, Deschanel just launched her musical career. Having performed fine duets in Elf with both Ferrell and the gravel-throated Leon Redbone (on Baby, It’s Cold Outside), she recently formed the duo She & Him with alt-folkie M. Ward. Ward’s ragged arrangements of saloon piano and heartland guitars won’t shock anyone familiar with his solo work, but Deschanel matches him in the vocal department. Her voice is warm and expressive, with a slight vibrato that suits the duo’s unshowy, anachronistic songs.

What The Go-Getter demonstrates is how much of Deschanel’s charm derives from her physical presence. One of the film’s quirks is that Deschanel doesn’t appear on camera until two-thirds of the way through; but you hear her throughout. After Mercer steals her car, Kate calls her cellphone, which she left on the dashboard; the film’s conceit is that she accompanies him aurally throughout his journey. Couched in her quizzical, adenoidal delivery, Deschanel’s lines are typical Sundance Girl fodder – existential ponderings and heartfelt confessions about love and life. But somehow, when you can’t see her baby blues blinking at you, the girl’s charm fades. (Martin Hynes’s excruciatingly earnest script and direction don’t help, either.)

Can Deschanel pass as a leading lady? Well, sure – provided the role calls for an arty, awkward Sundance Girl. She proved as much in All the Real Girls. But a leading lady in a blockbuster? She gets her chance next week, when the pale nymphet stars opposite Mark Wahlberg in M. Night Shyamalan’s eerie enviro-thriller The Happening. It will be the first time she has played a mainstream lead. I hope it doesn’t mark her transition to generic Hollywood babe; we’ve already got enough of those. I’d love to see Deschanel continue her reign as Sundance Girl 4 Life.

The Go-Getter opens in Toronto on June 6. The Happening opens across Canada on June 13.

Sarah Liss writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.