Hypothetically answering, what would you do if your spouse decided to put headstones on your cemetery plot with your names on them and you were still alive? Welcome to the Rileys is a film that manages to create questions through a slow paced, carefully crafted narrative using characters who don’t require a complete understanding. It isn’t often that a film can take stock characters, familiar everyday people and make them compelling without adding in elements of the absurd. I don’t mean absurd in the style of Beckett… Then again maybe I do.
When I think about family narratives, they are generally poorly, melodramatic Lifetime movies that are driven by the visual depiction of drama. A person dies tragically, is injured, or abused and the viewer is shown these images and instead of being led into the disentagration of family, the viewer is thrown headfirst into the emotional baggage of the characters forcing an emotional response. The only movie that I can speak of in terms of Black film where the death of a child is the center of the rise in action is Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married and that was with the characters played by Malik Yoba and Janet Jackson. The story line there presented a unique opportunity to establish a movie that could have been very similar to Welcome to the Rileys, but Perry dealt with that complicated storyline like Blacks couldn’t handle a slowly drawn narrative of discovery.
In Welcome to the Rileys the viewer comes to the point of recognition and catharsis at almost the same time as the main characters. While watching the film was a bit awkward, because my familiarity with James Gandolfini (Doug) stems from the Sopranos, and his Southern/Midwest drawl was odd, I kept waiting on someone to get wacked, his character was a combination of distant, brooding and sensitive that enabled me to move beyond my idea of who he typically plays. Melissa Leo (Doug’s wife Lois) is a character who creates small comedic moments in a tense film. Her character suffers from agoraphobia due to the tragedy of their daughter’s death.
Interestingly enough Welcome to the Rileys does not focus on what has strained the relationship, but on the subtle changes people make after encountering a difficult, life changing tragedy. The story is given further depth through the introduction of Mallory, aka Gina, aka… A young girl who Doug meets while at a convention in New Orleans. Mallory (Kristen Stewart playing the girl from Eclipse, but she plays that role convincingly) is a stripper and part time call girl. The romantic image of New Orleans, since Katrina, has changed and the Director Jake Scott does not glamorize the city. He uses very interesting shots of the city to detail what has occured in New Orleans as a direct parallel to what has happened to the Riley family, or any family that deals with death and its divisions. Mallory lives in a home that is obviously in the ward that was flooded during Hurricane Katrina. The director does not state or show this directly and a person watching would have to be familiar with the images of the city. In a very understated way the house is shown and the red paint diamond, with an X marked through it, with the date in one section, the number of people found in the home alive or dead in one section, is seen only as a backdrop to Doug and Mallory’s first united trip to the house.
There is an uncomfortable moment for the viewer as Doug interacts with Mallory, but slowly recognition occurs in his behavior towards her. Lois overcomes her distance in an attempt to save her relationship and the film becomes a study in hope. Welcome to the Rileys is definitely worth your time. I give the film 4 out of 5 stars.
Written by Ken Hixon