Every year at Sundance, I seem to find that one movie that I just can’t place. It is neither great, nor awful. It is filled with talent and at times, great performances, but it fails to really move me. It also — especially in this case — show potential. Such is the case with the second film from director Jake Scott, Welcome to the Rileys.
The film stars James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo as a couple who has spent years mourning the tragic loss of their 15-year old daughter. They cope in their own ways. He sleeps with a waitress from the waffle house every Thursday night, and she never leaves the house under any circumstance. But after tragedy strikes in his world, Doug (Gandolfini) travels to New Orleans for a trade show and lands himself in the life of a very young, runaway girl named Mallory (Kristen Stewart) who spends time stripping and turning tricks to maintain her meager, dirty existence.
Instead of doing what most men would do when faced with Kristen Stewart as a stripper and laying pipe (he owns a plumbing supply company), Doug takes Mallory under his wing. He helps her clean up her house, attempts to give her direction in life, all while telling his wife that he just can’t come home. This prompts his wife to leave the house and come to New Orleans, where she and Doug spend time weaving themselves into Mallory’s life, finding only more trouble as they get more and more involved.
It’s a fascinatingly uneven movie, which moves tonally from comedy to drama and back to drama in a rather plodding way. The relationship between Doug and Mallory is central to the movement of the story, and while the film moves slowly, it is their moments that make the film engaging. There is also some inconsistent visual style to the film. Early on, Scott and cinematographer Christopher Soos show off the Rileys’ home in Indianapolis and New Orleans in a very fluid, sometimes gritty fashion. As the film moves along and Mallory comes into the picture, the camera work becomes stiff and uninspired.
Inconsistencies aside, the performances are great all around. James Gandolfini stumbles at time with a very broad “southern” accent (which is curious, as he’s from Indiana), but for the most part he’s as vulnerable and virtuous as we’ve ever seen him. Melissa Leo, as always, is splendid as the awkward, calm wife. As the film moves from start to finish, her character blooms in front of our eyes, opening back up to the world after clearly being crippled by her daughter’s death.
Kristen Stewart is at her bravest. When we first meet Mallory, she’s surrounded by quick-cuts and music video sex appeal, but there’s clearly something else going on. She’s broken, tired and as we learn later, just a frightened little girl. Stewart plays through all of these layers incredibly well. She’s sexy, tortured and frightened. At some points, all at once. This isn’t her character from Twilight. It is a far more mature role, and one that is a polar opposite to Bella. Unless Bella starts showing her bare ass in the third movie…
If there’s one thing to be gleaned from Welcome to the Rileys, its that a movie can be plodding and uneven, but can still be saved by performance. In the end, Gandolfini, Leo and Stewart carry the film across the finish line and make it not just watchable, but intriguing in its own special way. It isn’t a very heartwarming story, but one of resilience and survival. And one worth watching, either way.