Welcome to the Rileys: ABC character drama

There really is a formula for everything. Welcome to the Rileys is director Jake Scott’s (son of Ridley, nephew of Tony) second outing in features following 1999’s Plunkett & Macleane. In Rileys Scott made a very ABC 123 character-driven drama, but there is enough worthwhile effort in Rileys to make it worth a watch. Scott demonstrates a talent for letting quiet human moments unravel—an ability that seems to have completely missed his dad and uncle—and he has a feel for clean, simple compositions that don’t clutter the visual landscape when the emotional one is so loaded.

Rileys opens on the image of a car on fire—I suppose there’s some DNA coding that means a Scott must have at least one burning thing in their movies—and later that opening frame came back to bug me. The story centers on “Doug and Lois Riley” (James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo), a middle aged couple whose fifteen year old daughter died in a car accident several years earlier. This is where the burning car comes in, but the movie isn’t about the actual death of their daughter, “Emily”, it’s about the after effect of loss and grief. A stronger, more relevant opening would be something like a depressing barren corn field. It’s the most overtly wrong choice Scott makes in the entire film which only made it bother me more. He was so careful with everything else—maybe too careful, as sometimes his direction had a tendency to feel stifled—but I suppose it felt justified since Lois witnessed the car her daughter was in engulfed in flames. I still didn’t like it. It was a harsh opening note for a relatively gentle film.

Scott takes his time letting scenes unwind and the early stages of the movie have little dialogue. Leo’s expressions of grief and despair are so subtle and crushing—her lip droops and your heart breaks—that I was really glad when Scott abandoned his early habit of framing Lois from the back, even as she talks. I felt it denied access to her character and Leo’s fine work doesn’t need dressing up with camera gimmicks. Leo’s is the strongest performance in the movie and she goes a long way in overcoming the clichés and formulaic plot points loaded into the script. She also benefits from the best-drawn character in the group.

If you think about it too much, it seems like Lois gets over years of agoraphobia (in a charming sequence we see she doesn’t know how to operate their Cadillac, it’s been that long since she’s driven anywhere) a little too easily, but Leo makes up for this a bit with Lois’s various expressions of fright and shattered nerves. There’s a particularly fine scene in a diner when a man hits on Lois and she reacts like a blushing young girl—it’s easy to see how much Lois has missed such interaction with men—but then she hears a group of teenaged girls laughing together and her grief returns, stamping out any semblance of pleasure or self-satisfaction. Leo manages it all with just how she turns her head, when and how low her shoulders droop, and the angle of her frown. She makes it look so easy and she remains one of the most elegant character actresses working today.

Gandolfini turns in a good performance as well, making Doug a guy who manages to get through his days with a smile on his face only to spend his nights weeping in the garage. Doug is carrying on an affair with a waitress and uses poker night as an excuse to get out of the house and away from Lois. But when Doug’s lover “Vivian” (Eisa Davis, Law & Order) dies suddenly, he can no longer maintain his façade. During a business trip to New Orleans, Doug decides to up and sell his plumbing business and stay in town, taking care of the young stripper he meets one night in a seedy Bourbon Street club (is there any other kind?).

Enter Kristen Stewart, best known these days as Bella Swan in the Twilight movies. Rileys is more indicative of the kind of work she was doing before Twilight, though she filmed it after the first Twilight film wrapped. Stewart really pulls the rabbit out of the hat with her performance. She has the worst dialogue and barely any characterization to work with, yet she makes her runaway teenaged stripper/prostitute “Mallory” (real name “Allison”) a sympathetic and complex character. Her establishing scene shows Mallory trying to coax Doug into the VIP room for a lap dance and seizing on his reluctance to be recognized in order to get him upstairs. Mallory is aggressive with Doug and so straightforward about prices and what she will and won’t do that she’s almost repulsive. Yet her near-desperation to earn as much money as possible makes Mallory a pitiable creature.

Stewart hits every note as Mallory, from the physicality of a sex worker—she’s covered in bruises and has a herpes-looking rash around her mouth—to the emotionally needy pleading of a young girl desperate for any kind of approval or kindness. Stewart ranges from feral crudity to a wounded whimper and the whole time she maintains an animalistic ability to convey hurt by flickering her eyebrows. It’s a convincing, affecting performance made impressive by the sheer lack of anything worthwhile to with which to work.

Gandolfini and Stewart work well together as pseudo father and daughter—when Mallory begs Doug not to be mad at her you believe their paternal connection, likewise when Doug scolds her for her bad language. Stewart also shows well with Leo and the two have a great scene together bonding over bra buying. Rileys works best when the three central actors are allowed to work in quiet spaces and these are also the scenes where Scott shines the most as a director. Ken Hixon’s (City by the Sea, Inventing the Abbotts) script is formulaic and doesn’t take any chances, which is strange as Hixon has written some compelling movies, but Scott and his trio of actors elevate the material with light yet heartfelt touches.

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One thought on “Welcome to the Rileys: ABC character drama

  1. ari

    I really love this movie, and I liked your review. also, I think the music in this movie is very beautiful, it gives a note of nostalgia.

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