Last weekend, I went down to one of my favorite movie theaters, the wonderful Plano Angelika, and I saw one of the best — if unheralded — independent films of 2010, Welcome To The Rileys.
Kristen Stewart plays Alison, a 16 year-old runaway who, as the movie opens, is working as a stripper and prostitute in New Orleans. One day, while at work, she meets a middle-aged businessman named Doug Riley (James Gandolfini). Doug is in New Orleans attending a convention and he reluctantly accepts Alison’s offer of a private dance. As soon as they’re alone together, Alison immediately offers to have sex with Doug for money. Doug turns her down, Alison angrily accuses him of being an undercover cop, and a flustered Doug leaves the club. Later that night, Doug happens to run into Alison again and, looking to make amends with her, he gives her a ride back to her “home,” which turns out to be an apparently abandoned and condemned row house. Doug ends up sleeping over at the house (though again, he refuses to have sex with Alison). The next day, Doug offers to pay Alison a hundred dollars a day if he can stay in her house while he’s in New Orleans. Alison, who is always on the look out for extra money, agrees. After a rough start, Doug and Alison settle into a bizarre sort of domesticity with the paternalistic Doug teaching Alison how to make a bed and Alison calling on Doug when one of her clients refuses to pay her for her services.
What Alison doesn’t know is that Doug has a wife in Indiana. Lois Riley (played by Melissa Leo) hasn’t stepped outside of their suburban home in years. Ever since the tragic death of their 16 year-old daughter, Lois has cut herself off from the world and her husband (even to the extent of tolerating Doug’s affair with a local waitress). However, when Doug calls her from New Orleans and announces that he won’t be coming home for a while, Lois forces herself to leave the house. While Doug is busy trying to escape from reality, Lois is driving down to New Orleans to try to bring him back.
When Lois reaches New Orleans, Doug introduces her to Alison and, to his surprise, the two of them almost immediately start to bond. Lois tells Alison about how their daughter and Alison responds by telling the story (which, the film hints, might not be true) of how her own mother also died in a car accident. Soon, both Doug and Lois have — for all intents and purposes — adopted Lois as their own daughter. However, what neither has considered is that Alison might not want to a part of the Riley family…
Welcome To The Rileys is ultimately a touching and low-key exploration of grief, guilt, and the struggle to accept the occasionally unpleasant realities of life. It’s also a portrait of three lost souls struggling to connect with the existence around them. Jake (son of Ridley) Scott’s direction is properly low-key and manages to be affecting without indulging in any of the obvious tricks that one might expect to see in a film like this. However, what makes this film ultimately work is a strong trio of lead performances from Gandolfini, Leo, and Stewart.
Playing Doug (a character that both I and the film had mixed feelings about), James Gandolfini gives a performance that’s so good that I never once found myself tempted to make any “Soproano”-related asides under my breath. Though his Southern accent comes and goes, Gandolfini brings the perfect combination of warmth, concern, self-pity, and stubbornness to his role and he makes Doug an understandable and sympathetic — if not always likable — character. A part of me feels that the film’s screenplay is a bit too quick to let Doug off the hook for some of his actions but, as an actor, Gandolfini never makes the same mistake.
Playing Alison, Kristen Stewart proves that it’s time to forgive her for starring in Twilight. Her performances in Into The Wild and The Runaways provided hints that she’s actually a very talented actress but her performance here proves it. She not only captures Alison’s sadness but, even more importantly, she doesn’t shy away from the anger that feeds off that sadness. She never sentimentalizes her performance, there’s no moment where she pauses to let the audience know that she’s a good girl at heart. Instead, she dares us to reject her while revealing just enough of her inner pain to make it impossible for us to do so.
However, for me, the film really belongs to Melissa Leo. Whether she’s struggling to figure out how to drive her husband’s car or primly introducing herself to Alison (who, at the time, is dressed for work), Leo is simply amazing. When Lois first appeared in the film, I was worried because it felt as if the filmmakers were using her agorophobia to justify Doug’s adultery. However, Melissa Leo subtly and surely starts to peel away the layers of Lois’ outward repression until, by the end of the movie, Lois is the most vibrant character in the film. Just check out the scene where Lois responds to a flirtatious man in a truck stop with a combination of pride, amusement, and surprise and you’ll see what great acting is all about.
When Lois finally ends up in New Orleans, she seems to bring a whole new life to the movie. What previously seemed to simply be a meditation on loss and sadness is instead revealed to be a celebration of life and love. For a film that originally seemed to be about an errant husband and an angry runaway, Welcome To The Rileys eventually turns out to be a tribute to one woman who turns out to be far stronger than anyone gave her credit for.
With all the current Oscar hype surrounding films like The Social Network and The Kids Are All Right, Welcome To The Rileys is the type of low-key, subtle movie that will probably be forgotten in the rush to jump on all the more obvious bandwagons. That’s a shame because it’s one of the best films of 2010 and one that deserves to be seen over the years to come.