Whether they love or loathe the wildly successful Twilight franchise, I pity viewers that are so narrow-minded that instead of the inability to see the forest for the trees, they’re unable to separate the immensely talented actress Kristen Stewart from her one-dimensional role as Bella Swan in Stephanie Meyer’s series.
Likewise because Twilight’s success is so overwhelming that it can cause tunnel vision, it’s worth reminding viewers that Stewart’s career was well in existence B.B. (Before Bella). Namely, in the course of twenty plus films released in a little more than a decade, we’ve witnessed the onscreen evolution of one of this generation’s most promising young stars.
And fittingly since it is such a fan-driven phenomenon, the actress revealed in this month's Vogue that her ultimate goal with Twilight is just to make the Meyer’s loyal fan-base happy from one adaptation to the next.
Therefore, ultimately it’s in her non-vampire related material that we get a stronger sense of the young woman’s range as a performer and commitment to seeking out incredibly diverse projects that challenge and fascinate Stewart.
For in spite of the immediate red flags that go up whenever we read about another stripper or hooker role in the world of independent film given the potential for clichés and exploitation, Stewart’s daring gamble to portray a teenage runaway turned stripper pays off in director Jake Scott’s flawed, unusual yet mostly effective chamber piece, Welcome to the Rileys.
Working from an admittedly sudsy yet well-intentioned screenplay penned by Inventing the Abbotts scribe Ken Hixon, Rileys is as tough and tender as the man who embodies its main character Doug Riley in the form of Sopranos star James Gandolfini who -- like Stewart -- knows a thing or two about having been typecast by a franchise hit.
Although it’s been eight years since the tragic death of their teenage daughter, Doug and his wife Lois (Frozen River and The Fighter Oscar nominee Melissa Leo) remain numb in their grief. However, whereas Doug tries to keep up appearances by bluffing his way through weekly poker games and carrying on a ritual affair with a local waitress who enjoys their uncomplicated arrangement, it seems that the emotionally stagnant, agoraphobic Lois has folded on the outside world altogether.
Yet when another abrupt offscreen tragedy forces a startled Doug to come face-to-face with couple's lot in life, he embarks on both a literal and existential journey after a standard work trip to New Orleans turns into a second chance to set things right.
And even though he doesn’t delude himself for a second, knowing from the moment he meets the Stewart’s down-on-her-luck Florida runaway turned stripper Mallory that aside from a slight resemblance she isn’t anything like his deceased daughter, instinctively as a parent who lost a child, Doug can’t turn his back on a child without a parent.
So what begins as a tentative, awkward relationship between the two strangers that Doug likens to a business deal by paying her a ridiculous sum of money to stay at her rundown place instead of a hotel soon grows into a strong bond that gives Doug a renewed sense of purpose.
Thus, almost as an afterthought once he's already started to turn Mallory's place into a new home, Doug phones his wife and tells her he isn’t coming back, unintentionally lighting the fuse that gives Lois the emotional explosion that she needs to... do something.
However, her reaction takes the form of a dubious act that takes our sense of suspension of disbelief and pushes it just a little too far. After only a few mini-obstacles, somehow Lois not only manages to overcome what had previously been a crippling case of agoraphobia so severe that she couldn’t fetch the newspaper at the edge of her driveway but amazingly she also finds the strength to drive all the way to New Orleans while magically going off her medication at the same time.
Melissa Leo handles her character's transformation into a plucky Pollyanna with humor and feminine grace and overall it's a decidedly refreshing alternative to the staggering amount of doom and gloom Lars von Trier style woman-scorned nervous breakdowns we see in independent cinema.
Nonetheless, despite trusting that the filmmakers' motives are pure, it's hard to ignore that in this case with such an abrupt change, the old "toss out your prescriptions and pick yourself up by your bootstraps" concept is handled a little too breezily, ultimately coming across as slightly condescending and insensitive to individuals that are truly overcome with grief.
Yet even though we don’t really buy the coincidences and contrivances that comprise Plunkett and Macleane director Jake Scott’s sophomore movie as though it were just another entry into the indie film world of grief-a-palooza (that can be divided into subgenres of deceased children, spouses etc.), we’re nonetheless willing to appreciate Rileys as a sort of rough-around-the-edges humanistic fairy tale.
In fact given the admittedly emotionally manipulative plotline, without the grit, Rileys could have actually been in danger of evolving into a Hallmark Hall of Fame style two-hankie presentation.
But despite a few far-too-obvious instances of visual symbolism, the technical craftsmanship of Jake Scott (son of Ridley and nephew of Tony) is superb and helps hide some of the shortcomings in the script, which is likewise evidenced in an impressive Blu-ray transfer from Sony.
However, it’s a character-driven piece overall and one that would’ve been just too much to believe without its pitch perfect casting. With this in mind, Rileys is augmented by the dynamic portrayals of its damaged trio-- first and foremost by James Gandolfini who seemingly carries the film along before the ensemble begins to harmonize. And indeed the true heart and soul of the picture is unveiled once and for all once Gandolfini crosses paths with the fiery Stewart who proves once again that she’s come a long way since before and after she played Bella.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.