Ask a parent what their biggest fear is and most will reply, “That my child dies before me.” It’s just inbred in us: the security of knowing that one day, our children will take care of us, even bury us when need be. But what happens when the natural order of things is disrupted? What happens when your child has a serious, debilitating disease, and dies at the age of 10? What happens when your daughter kills herself after a long bout of depression? What happens when you see their cold, empty corpse just sitting in front of you, for the last time? Of course, it is the mother and father, their love, their mindset, and their future that takes the strain.
Jake Scott’s (son of Ridley Scott) “Welcome to the Rileys” explores themes such as the loss of a child and the mending of the heart that follows such a death, through the story of Doug (James Gandolfini) and Lois Riley (Melissa Leo), whose child’s demise is presented in the film’s opening scene – a shot of a wrecked car, with flames engulfing it. Both Doug and Lois have different coping mechanisms. Doug is a gambling man who regularly cheats on his wife with a young waitress, and then hides in the garage of his house, cries and smokes. Lois has developed a severe case of agoraphobia, refusing to leave the house for years, thus acquiring a dependency for prescription medication. Both continue to neglect their marriage.
There is a juxtaposition between Doug, whose loss at the hands of destiny makes him strive for absolute control over anything and everything he can, and Lois, whose newly-found fear forces her into blind obedience and paranoia. However, Doug meets Mallory (Kristen Stewart), a teenage runaway-turned-stripper, in New Orleans. With Mallory — who appears to be a scantily-clad, foul-mouthed, under-educated resurrection of their daughter, Emily — the dynamic equilibrium is quickly disrupted.
Mallory is neither the anti-thesis nor compliment of either Doug or Lois; in fact, she retains features from both characters. She maintains the need for power, which she gets through sexuality, while still having the destructive paranoia of Lois. This balance makes both Doug and Lois, who ultimately conquers her fears in an attempt to rejuvenate her failing marriage, equally important in their journey to lead Mallory towards a brighter future.
It’s hard not to commend Stewart for venturing into even darker territory than “The Runaways,” but it’s even harder not to praise her performance as Mallory, to which she gives it her all, thus making the character accessible to the audience, even through the tough subject matter. This makes her work in the “Twilight” series, though initially profitable, a professional blunder that will hurt Stewart’s credibility in the long-run.
However, Gandolfini and Leo also have had their fair share of bad performances (“All the King’s Men,” “The Taking of Pelham 123,” “Everybody’s Fine,” “Righteous Kill”). Nevertheless, they both bring an immense level of talent to the film, working off the chemistry between the three characters — although Doug’s compulsive need for control makes his relationship to Mallory a tad creepy at times, which retracts from otherwise excellent acting. However, that is due to a script which could have used some fine tuning and revision.
Penned by Ken Hixon, “Welcome to the Rileys” has its moments of flat dialogue, which almost border on laughable, and a cliché ending. But there is enough dramatic buildup and the great performances compensate for the less than polished screenplay. However, make no mistake, there are a couple of fantastic scenes, namely when Doug visits the cemetery were his daughter is buried and the camera focuses on three tombstones, two being reserved for Lois and himself, and one for their daughter, whose death date has already been marked.
It’s scenes like these that really propel the film past Hixon’s rickety script and Scott’s bland direction. Admittedly, the overall film is beneath the standards that its leading performers set, but luckily, there is just enough for “Welcome to the Rileys” not to fall into the realm of Lifetime specials (aka faux-family dramas) and to satisfy its audience.
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