Short of an environmental apocalypse wiping out the world’s electronic networks, our species will never face any kind of dearth of Little Family Dramedies With Big Hearts. These types of films have been a staple ever since Alan Ayckbourn turned the living-room into the kind of emotional hippodrome that Ordinary People helped to popularize onscreen. While the latter doesn’t exactly adhere to the dramedy category, many of its features have been co-opted by lighter, Ayckbourn-ized versions over the years: the Awkward Youth On The Cusp of Manhood (the one somehow Burdened With His Parent’s Glitch), the Filibustering Mom With The Destructive Yet Loveable Quirk, the Heartfelt Teary Talk That Makes It All Better. Cherie Nowlan’s Introducing the Dwights* easily slots itself into this genre by hitting all the right notes — often with enough force to set a new record for splatter radius. Reviewing Will Self’s How the Dead Live for the New York Times back in 2000, Tom Shone famously quipped, “Throw this book at a wall and it will stick.” The fact that this bon mot surfaced in my mind as I watched Nowlan’s film should be your first and best clue.
Not only is Brenda Blethyn a guaranteed draw for lovers of what I’ve come to think of as The Gooey Import, but she’s also made a career out of playing slightly off-kilter matrons who look like they’re suffering from a chronic buzzing sound in their heads. While some reviewers have called Blethyn’s performance in Dwights “shrill” and “shrieking,” her talent is inarguable and her trademark mannerisms are definitely appropriate to the role (and, as it turns out, not nearly as shrieky as I was led to expect). Whatever problems one may have with the film, it’s not with the degree of the players’ individual talents. Blethyn is surrounded by a mainly youthful cast who deserve their positions under this stalwart British dame’s wing. Khan Chittenden and Richard Wilson, as her two sons, somehow make their characters’ blandness engaging, and the sylph-like Emma Booth — apart from almost making me wish I could reincarnate as a teenage boy — is just fluster-flawed enough under all that beauty to ensure she fits in with the human-mortal rest of suburbia.
Blethyn plays Jean Dwight, an aging canteen worker who moonlights as a variety-show comedian — the kind who opens her act with saws like “Good evening, ladies and genitalia!” Over the course of the film, we learn that her Phyllis Diller dreams were diverted by marriage and motherhood. By all accounts, and by the evidence of playbills, photos and one-sheets framed on the walls of her modest Queensland bungalow, Jean was just about to Make It Big in London when she wed an Australian Conway Twitty wannabe and left for the colonies. Years later, she’s an entertainer first, a mother, music teacher and hash-slinger second, and any suggestion that it should be otherwise sends Jean into a boozy tantrum. Her stand-up routines are laced with misandry, and the story that surrounds these vaudevillian snapshots reveals just how fertile that proverbial kernel of truth really is. Jean both resents men (to the point where she’s perhaps even irredeemably disgusted by them sexually) and makes men her raison d’etre; she’s one of the most obnoxiously possessive onscreen mother-in-laws I’ve ever seen. She explicitly blames her sons for her missed opportunities, but nearly can’t bear to let them out of her sight or into another woman’s favor. This continual push/pull of resenting and desperately needing men is what sustained my interest in Dwights, for the most part — it gives the film the slightest cast of difference in all of its raging sameness (and even then, I couldn’t help feeling I’d seen this emotional matrix before).
Jean’s neuroses surface like a Bondi killer wave when Tim, her youngest, brings home the luminous Jill. Tim is shy, strapping and devoted, the locus of Jean’s happily-ever-after; her eldest, Mark, suffered minor brain damage at birth when he emerged wrapped in his umbilical cord (opting against subtle, Nowlan ensures we get this literalizing image of a suffocating maternal figure). It’s no shock when sparks fly between the mother (whose possessiveness borders on sexual jealousy) and the new girlfriend. Jean’s put-downs, subtle or sotto voce, are achingly acute for those of us who’ve been in Jill’s position. Parents are supposed to be pillars of maturity in a roomful of young adults, and it’s an unfortunate cliché that many of the former can’t seem to adjust to the idea of their offspring nesting happily in someone else’s elsewhere. It’s also an onscreen cliché, but Blethyn’s cuts are deliciously wham-o and made me physically react in my seat in disbelief, as well as in empathy for the interloping son-stealing tart. I think the scenes between Jean and Jill are some of the best mean-mom-in-law moments on film to date. They’re excruciatingly real, and all the more vivid for being thematically relevant.
Introducing the Dwights doesn’t introduce us to anything original. We’ve seen Blethyn play this register before; we’ve seen cute movie-dates taking place at indoor skating rinks, with one character inevitably unable to stay on his feet; we’ve seen the inexperienced young man make wincingly schlub moves in bed with the hot girl. And God knows we’ve all seen the everything’s-fine-now wedding epilogue (trust me, it’s no spoiler), in which erstwhile enemies send one another mental hugs across the room. This kind of Gooey Import has a well-defined arc, and Nowlan is too nervous to veer offside but for the odd, very light touch here and there; since these are the only discoverable ephemerae the film has to offer, I won’t point them out and spoil what little can be. Where Dwights lets me down the most is in its Must-See-TV ending, which is far too simple, and sudden, for the situation Nowlan has set up over the course of the film. It’s in the ending where Keith Thompson’s script loses any advantage it tenuously maintained thanks to the actors’ rounding-out of stock characters as best they can. It’s in the ending where the film’s faint stench of maudlin finally overwhelms. — Ranylt Richildis
* Introducing the Dwights is a North American title; the film was released as Clubland in Australia and elsewhere.
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on July 26, 2007.)