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.