With the latest Twilight installment being unleashed upon the world this weekend and Snow White and the Huntsman in production, Kristen Stewart’s every move is in the spotlight. One exception to this is a little known film in which Stewart teamed up with former Sopranos star James Gandolfini and Academy Award-winner Melissa Leo. Welcome to the Rileys finds Ms. Stewart playing an underage stripper named Mallory ,who works in a New Orleans nightclub. One night she is visited by Douglas (Gandolfini), a lonely man on a business trip who is truly looking for nothing but someone to whom he can talk. In an attempt to hide from some of his colleagues at the club, Douglas spends a little time in a private room with Mallory. Soon enough, the lives of these two are inextricably linked.
The film opens with Douglas’s home life. He plays poker with friends, eats at a late night diner on his own, and sleeps with the waitress (Eisa Davis) from said diner. He then returns home to a loving wife, Lois (Leo), for whom he seems to have a great deal of affection. It soon becomes apparent that his extramarital affair is not the result of a mid-life crisis. It is, in fact, a genuine attempt to fill a void in his world. Since the death of their 15-year-old daughter 7 years ago, Lois has become a recluse, refusing to even leave her house to go as far as the mail box. She has withdrawn emotionally in equal measure; while polite and composed, she hardly utters a word unless spoken to. When Doug leaves for his business trip, Lois keeps tabs on the flight to make sure that it doesn’t crash. When Doug calls after several days to tell her that he’s decided to stay in the Big Easy for a while, Lois is forced to choose between her sheltered life in Indiana and what’s left of her family down south.
The simplistic parallel that Mallory is a replacement for Doug’s deceased daughter is an obvious hurdle for the screenplay (by Ken Hixon) to get past. This is artfully done by making the relationship interesting in its own right, outside of what it represents to the characters. Gandolfini and Stewart have genuine onscreen chemistry, bringing out the most likable qualities in one another. When all three characters are brought together, the relationships develop quickly and in unexpected ways. Situations which could have easily turned maudlin and sappy are instead genuinely moving. Hixon also chooses to withhold extensive biographies about all of the characters, letting the audience instead draw its own conclusions about how all of them arrived where they are.
Since breaking in to the mainstream of popular culture with her Academy Award-nominated performance in Frozen River (2008), Leo has taken on a veritable menagerie of roles. One would be hard pressed to find her in two consecutive films where she has the same hair color and accent. In Rileys, she gives a heart and inner emotional life to a woman whom it would be easy to play as a 2-dimensional caricature. The film also lets Gandolfini do what he does best (aside from breathe very heavily). He plays a father figure; someone who will give you a hug one second, only to knock you on your ass the next. This he does with charm, sensitivity, and the inherent authoritativeness which his physicality affords. One glaring flaw in his performance is the uneven southern accent he uses between his Indiana scenes and those in New Orleans. It isn’t hugely distracting, but does engender a bit of speculation about how the choice was made to use it or not. Stewart, for her part, holds her own quite well. She showed a lot of early promise with roles in films like The Safety of Objects (2001) and Panic Room (2002). In both, she had the charmingly awkward boyishness of a young Jodie Foster (coincidentally her onscreen mom in the latter film). She’s maintained that quality in to her adulthood, and it serves her well here. Like one of Foster’s most famous roles, in Taxi Driver (1976), Mallory is a girl doing her best to play the part of a woman. This is evidenced not only by the dichotomy between her character’s sexy club attire and the baggy jeans and hoodies that she wears outside of work, but by Stewart’s jittery mannerisms and scatterbrained delivery.
The result of Welcome to the Rileys is a satisfying, if not extraordinary, intimate drama. The subtly humorous dialogue and strong performances elevate what might have otherwise been a mediocre story of yet another hooker with a heart of gold.