Welcome to the Rileys: "An honest and heartfelt examination of the mysteries of broken hearts"

Regardless of topic, themes or pedigree, a film starring Kristen Stewart is certain to draw a crowd. The programming staff at the 2010 Brisbane International Film Festival certainly think so, whilst incessant internet chatter does little to prove the proposition wrong.

Of course, the majority of hype that surrounds Stewart’s work has been generated on the back of her involvement as Bella Swan in the Twilight series, with Stewart-mania sweeping the teen demographic alongside the equally catchy and inexplicable Robert Pattinson craze.

In her latest film, Stewart shares the spotlight with two other actors also well-known for stand-out roles (James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in New Jersey gangster opus The Sopranos, and Melissa Leo as Kay Howard in the under-appreciated classic cop series Homicide: Life On The Streets), in a feature from a director with his own share of entertainment baggage as well (Jake Scott, son of Robin Hood-helmer Ridley, and nephew of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 filmmaker Tony).

Indeed, it is apt that reinvention is the name of the game in the film in question, withWelcome To The Rileys unravelling as an earnest and endearing feature that showcases the best of all involved.

Stepping out of his father’s shadow in his second effort, Scott (director of 1999′s Plunkett And MacLeane) delves into a world of second chances in a premise brimming with redemptive potential. Similarly, despite Stewart, Gandolfini and Leo having proven themselves as quite capable thespians in a range of previous efforts (Stewart in Into The Wild and Adventureland, Gandolfini in The Man Who Wasn’t There and In The Loop, and Leo in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and her Oscar-nominated performance in Frozen River), each too finally wades out from underneath the weight of the work that they are best known for.

One can only hope that the Welcome To The Rileys will make inroads into changing the public perception of the director and key cast, with each deserving of acclaim and attention in an exploration of the road less travelled for a trio of personalities united by grief but otherwise painfully alone.

After thirty years of marriage Doug and Lois Riley (Gandolfini, Where The Wild Things Are, and Leo, Dear Lemon Lima) are caught in limbo, unable to move on from the sudden death of their daughter years earlier. Doug turns to gambling (a weekly poker match) and adultery (a local waffle waitress, played by Law And Order‘s Eisa Davis), whilst Lois channels her grief into her home, with infrequent visits from her hairdresser, pastor and sister (Ally Sheedy, Life During Wartime) her only outside contact.

On a business trip to New Orleans, a strip club sojourn causes Doug to meet sixteen year old Mallory (Stewart, The Runaways), a streetwise runaway who wears her own share of hardships on her sleeve. Desperate for money, Mallory attempts to lure Doug in as a client, yet despite his refusal an unlikely bond forms between the plumbing salesman and the stripper.

Unable to return to his strained, static life with Lois, Doug offers Mallory $100 a day to stay with her, an offer that will have a profound effect on his marriage, her well-being, and his wife’s ability to process their loss and move on.

Under a layer of emotional padding that is never forced nor false, at its core Welcome To The Rileys is a coming of age story about a grieving couple and a self-destructive sex worker.
Although slow-moving at first, Ken Hixon’s (Inventing The Abbotts) script paints a deliberate and delicate picture of tortured souls (mourning for loved ones as well as for that sense of self that each has lost) and tragic paths, intersecting and connecting courtesy of inertia and fate.
As the film progresses, from humble beginnings the manifestation of latent possibility within each character becomes known, with perception (the cheating husband, the unresponsive wife, the cheap stripper) and reality (the father in suspended animation, the mother wracked with guilt, the little girl lost but too proud to admit it) augmented to poignant effect.

Heightened by outstanding performances from the three central actors (each worlds away from their better-known stereotypes), as well as considered and patient direction from Scott, though the themes may be familiar the end result is surprising, in a solid and sweet, honest and heartfelt examination of the mysteries of broken hearts and absent minds.
Welcome To The Rileys screens on November 6 and 13, 2010 at the Brisbane International Film Festival.

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