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by Eric Kohn
October 25, 2010 1:52 AM
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REVIEW | Better than "Twilight": Kristen Stewart in "Welcome to the Rileys"

A scene from "Welcome To The Rileys."

Kristen Stewart's status as the mopey face of gothic teenage angst in the "Twilight" franchise has easily overpowered the other achievements of her brief career. At age twenty, she has appeared in a number of thematically advanced character studies ("Adventureland" among them), suggesting the antithesis to the murky innuendo and hackneyed drama of the big screen vampire craze. More often than not, the "Twilight" movies downgrade Stewart's talent from credible understatement to a plastic vision of post-adolescent frustration. In "Welcome to the Rileys," the second feature from music video director Jake Scott, Stewart delivers the legitimate version of that archetype with a role that rejects commercial standards: She plays a 16-year-old stripper.

In "Rileys," Stewart's baby-faced appearance is a storytelling device. The disconnect between her adult sensuality and childish looks elicits the sympathies of Doug (James Gandolfini), a depressed business man equally reeling from the death of his daughter in an automobile accident eight years earlier and the more recent passing of his mistress. On a business trip to New Orleans, Doug encounters Mallory (Stewart) in a strip club and follows her into a back room to avoid getting noticed by his peers. Mallory makes a few under-the-table advances toward Doug that reveal her true profession. Like anyone perturbed by the juvenile sexual prowess of the characters in "Twilight," Mallory's potential client recoils at the advancements of an underage girl in her skivvies.

Despite his emotional hang-ups, Doug's latent parenting skills suddenly kick in, providing an excuse to escape his stale marriage to the similarly glum Lois (Melissa Leo). In short order, he crashes at Mallory's deteriorating apartment, pays her daily rent and aims to reform her life. The mission is simultaneously heartwarming and creepy.

Growing increasingly fixated on rectifying Mallory's smutty existence, Doug's true motive involves his attempt to create a ghostly alternative version of his own broken family life. "I feel like I landed on Mars," he says after a few days of his new arrangement, and the setting does have an otherworldly quality compared to the suburban home he left behind.

Needless to say, this isn't just the Kristen Stewart show. A full 180-degrees from Tony Soproano territory, Gandolfini expresses an even greater fragility than the teen his character strives to protect. His face, a frozen scowl, expresses everything his words never can. An early scene finds Doug strolling through the cemetery, drifting from the tombstones of acquaintances and family and unexpectedly coming upon his own name, prematurely placed by his wife. With a subtle shrug, Gandolfini enunciates the movie's ongoing meditation on grief and morality.

Still, Ken Hixon's screenplay gives Stewart the raunchy spotlight. Here, the boundaries of Stewart's onscreen capabilities face the ultimate test. Her explicit one-liners sometimes ruin the narrative spell, dragging the story down to "Showgirls"-level campiness. "God, did somebody open a can of tuna?" she chuckles after yanking a dollar bill out of her crotch while Doug drives her home from turning tricks. Seeing his disdain, she responds, "I bet your balls smell like apple fritters, right?" Stewart can get angry and aggressive, but the moment she goes lewd, something seems fishy -- and it's not the money. These weaker outbursts are counteracted by the believably jaded Mallory rolling her eyes at Doug's paternal support rather than lifting her skirt.

In contrast to her exuberance, "Rileys" sports a contained, somber mood epitomized by Leo's character. When Lois follows Doug's trail and discovers his newfound mission, she immediately comprehends the problem. "That is not our child," she says. So begins the next stage of his unorthodox therapy, in which he reemerges from his fantasy and figures out how to get along with the family that remains alive. The trajectory may sound unoriginal and slight, and it certainly fits that description on paper. But the leisurely pace and assured performances add a welcome layer of naturalism when they could have easily deteriorated into sentimental mush.

Satisfyingly moving if not particularly groundbreaking, "Rileys" was one of two Stewart vehicles at Sundance this year. The other, a loud, messy Joan Jette biopic called "The Runaways," implied Stewart had lost the capacity for serious dramatic roles. "Rileys" counteracted that presumption, proving that the actress does her best work when toning it down, not turning it up.

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12 Comments

  • Economist | December 21, 2010 5:49 AMReply

    It wouldn't be difficult for Kristen Stewart to be better in this than she is in Twilight, she's a blinking, stuttering, bland teenager in that movie. In this one she does all that but throws in smoking, swearing, and being a horrible brat, but that's not acting either, she's just being herself. Maybe that's why the reviews were better, but it's still not acting. She's being overlooked for any award nominations, too. She better be banking that Twilight money, producers are going to wise up soon enough.

  • Abby | November 4, 2010 3:41 AMReply

    Filmgoer summarized everything quite nicely. Kristen Stewart's performance was not acting. It was TRYING to act... without being successful.

  • Filmgoer | November 3, 2010 10:05 AMReply

    I think you were too kind. Kristen Stewart was miscast, again, and she uses all the same mannerisms that she does in her other indy bombs. The lip biting and fidgeting has to stop. It's not acting if you do it in every single film. Other reviewers were more to the point:

    Stewart's idea of inhabiting this part seems to be to scowl a lot and let her hair go unwashed. The Twilight star doesn't have the depth or emotional agility to go toe-to-toe with Gandolfini and Leo.

    Stewart's idea of inhabiting this part seems to be to scowl a lot and let her hair go unwashed. The Twilight star doesn't have the depth or emotional agility to go toe-to-toe with Gandolfini and Leo.

    Incidentally, Rileys has been casually dubbed ''Kristen Stewart's stripper movie,'' but the handle doesn't stick: Stewart may wear skimpy clothes and grind once or twice from the neck down, but from the neck up she's all hollow, bruised eyes, twisted little mouth, and classic, coltish K-Stew rebellion.

    The film underperformed the box office estimates, proving again that fans of Twilight are not flocking to see her blink and stammer her way through another movie.

  • tame | October 26, 2010 10:50 AMReply

    She's more talented than she gives her credit? :) A good laugh. She's a girl who can only play herself. Look her interviews and you see the depressed and awkward characters she 'plays'.

  • Dave | October 26, 2010 8:31 AMReply

    Finally somebody describes Kristen Stewart's talents.

  • hnltosfo | October 26, 2010 4:11 AMReply

    Kristen Stewart is a verry good actress in my opinion. While she doesn't have the typical depth to become a diverse actress, that doesn't mean she isn't a complete actress.. Kristen strives at emotionally charged and depressing roles and it's true that she will never become a "comedic" actor, yet I find that the more emotional roles are more interesting anyways..

  • in the know | October 26, 2010 3:51 AMReply

    stearts acting will never amount to anything other than mediocre.
    her depth is minimal at best.

    what she needs is a few years on stage in the theatre. she actually may learn something.

    she is fated to show herself in one indy movie after another.

  • Javier Serrano | October 26, 2010 2:28 AMReply

    Stewart is the next big talent in the horizon. Your review points to her talents and versatility.

  • Susan | October 25, 2010 11:43 AMReply

    I have loved everything Stewart has been in and cannot wait to see Rileys. Unfortunately, I am in an area where it will not be showing for some time. I feel an Oscar is in the cards for her in the next few years because the roles she chooses have merit.

  • Jillian A. Torrez | October 25, 2010 7:11 AMReply

    I think this movie is only another stepping stone for the lovely actress in the right direction. She has a way of showing deep depth in her portrayal of characters. She is more talented then I think she even gives herself credit for. It leaves me anxious and a wanting to see more and more.

  • Herb | October 25, 2010 5:14 AMReply

    This review presents to the reader in a clear fashion the inconsistency of Ms. Steward acting and a balance of the positive and no so positive elements of the film. This is what I expect from a review. It helped me to gauge my interest on the movie. Thanks.

  • Til | October 25, 2010 3:06 AMReply

    One of the worst reviews I've ever read. You talked a lot about Ms. Stewart but never said enough to tell me whether you liked her acting or not. I can't even tell if you liked the movie from what is written. No wonder movie goers don't care about critics anymore. We can't understand you all.