"Welcome to the Rileys," starring James Gandolfini, Kristen Stewart and Melissa Leo as three storm-tossed souls, is like a quiet conversation about despair and hope. Ordinary people trying to deal with the kind of aching loss that's settled deep in the bones.
This flawed yet promising film from music video and commercial director Jake Scott (dad is Ridley, uncle is Tony) comes with no show, no razzle-dazzle — just Doug and Lois Riley (Gandolfini and Leo), eight years into their grief over the death of their teenage daughter in a car accident.
Working from a script by Ken Hixon, who favors small towns and broken lives ("City by the Sea" and "Inventing the Abbotts" are his best-known films), the story begins in a tidy middle-class neighborhood in Indianapolis. In the years since their daughter's death, Doug and Lois have become careful with their lives, Lois so locked down she's unable to leave the house. Escape for Doug comes in the form of a New Orleans plumbing convention and salvation from a bruised young stripper named Mallory (Stewart).
The narrative is driven by that old saw that the way to heal your own pain is to help someone else. That's easier said than done, of course, and much of the pleasure of the film is watching Gandolfini and Stewart navigate a minefield pocked with stopped toilets, no electricity, arrests and even angry johns.
Stewart, who was cast in the film before the "Twilight" tsunami hit, continues to gravitate to characters that the world has roughed up, with Mallory a few shades darker than the actress' well-crafted young Joan Jett in "The Runaways" earlier this year. She just gets better at bringing a naked vulnerability to her performances. Here it's like watching a slide show of anger, pain, innocence, outrage and mischief play across her face.
Gandolfini, in his own way, has that same ability to wear his heart on his sleeve, and Doug's discomfort when the barely clad Mallory tries to seduce him with a lap dance is priceless. There are no strains of Tony Soprano, no cocky arrogance, just a good guy trying to do the best he can.
Their tentative father-daughter relationship unfolds in a down-market side of New Orleans, more ugly than anything else and as good a setting as any to figure out whether there is anything about these lives worth reclaiming. Cinematographer Chris Soos, also from the music video and commercial world with a couple of films now under his belt, uses space and light to set the mood as the story moves between the grime of the city and the pristine wasteland of the Rileys' suburban life. He is better with darker moods, and the film's opening frames of Gandolfini's face in heavy shadows and cigarette smoke are especially nice.
Like the lives examined here, the film doesn't always work. As small scale and intimate as it is, sometimes three's a crowd, and in trying to allow Leo time to put some meat on Lois' bones, the film loses balance. Scott is still too tentative with his actors and hampered by a script that keeps trying to fix too many of Mallory's problems with new clothes and clean sheets. Fortunately Stewart seems to thrive in water over her head, and when she pulls Gandolfini in with her the movie jells. It makes you wish the filmmaker had left them in the deep end longer.