Sometimes stuff happens in life that jolts us out of our comfort zone. It removes us from our daily routines and leaves us lagging in the pace of our own life. It can affect our relationships with others and can make our otherwise familiar environment seem alien. This is precisely what happens to Doug and Lois Riley when their 15 year old daughter dies in a car crash. The couple’s 30 year marriage suffers. Lois is on medication and is psychologically housebound. Doug sleeps with a local waitress but later she dies. Whilst on a work conference in New Orleans and unable to relate his latest grief to anyone, he befriends a young teenage stripper. Feeling the spark of paternal instinct reigniting his soul, he (and later his wife) take the young lady under their wing.
It is a very unlikely scenario and in any other situation it would seem far fetched and slightly surreal that the characters would find themselves in this situation and these environments. However, it’s more symbolic of everything I mentioned earlier about the experience of trauma and one’s journey through it. At one point Doug reflects “I feel like I’ve landed on Mars” and that about sums it up for all the characters. I most enjoyed Lois and Doug having what was probably the frankest conversation they’ve ever had about their marriage at nighttime surrounded by the slum dwellings. Even for Mallory, the stripper, the Rileys intervention into her life has a profound effect. Their mature and slightly philosophical handling of the bad luck life has dealt them is something she eventually takes to her own heart, even inspiring her to initiate the Rileys to face some skeletons of their own.
When asked what he wanted people to take away from this film, director Jake Scott said “Hope”. Tick box. Michael Frayn once gave one of his characters, Brian Stimpson, one of my favourite ever lines. “It’s not the despair…I can handle the despair… it’s the hope!” Indeed hope cannot be reached without despair. What Scott does well in this movie is to ensure the despair doesn’t become too indulgent. James Gandolfini’s suppressed emotions are spot on – I should know, I’m British! His performance would get my vote for Best Actor whatever the shape of the trophy! Kristen Stewart avoids cliches a character like hers could have easily become, crafting a more layered dynamic performance and an understated chemistry in her relationship with the Rileys, which pleased me. Melissa Leo’s Lois Riley had many incarnations – the shell of a devastated woman racked with self-guilt, the perfect American mother and a young woman trapped in a middle aged womans body. And once, just once, whilst telling Mallory for the first time of the death of her daughter – a brief glint in her eyes of who she used to be. Superb stuff.
To simply call this picture a “feel good” film would be to dismiss many of its finer qualities. It could have easily been corny, over-indulgent, sentimental pap. But writer Ken Hixon and director Jake Scott have produced something beautifully genuine, simple yet complex, poignant yet aspiring. And, if anything else, it is worth watching just for Gandolfini’s performance.
“Welcome to the Rileys” is released in UK cinemas on 18th November 2011