Folks looking for this summer's Little Miss Sunshine might find similarities in Introducing the Dwights (previously known as Clubland when it premiered at Sundance earlier this year). Like Sunshine, Dwights revolves around a somewhat eccentric family whose members all aspire to be bigger than they are. While there's no physical road trip in Dwights, each character embarks on an inner journey -- one of physical exploration and, eventually, transformation. It's sweet, quirky, sincere, and provides a perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of those big-budgeted extravaganzas currently invading your local theater.
Told from a few different perspectives, this Aussie coming-of-age tale is, essentially, about growing up and giving in to the forces that control our own personal universe. Jean (Brenda Blethyn), a UK-born comedienne and stage performer nearing middle age, works tirelessly to keep her family and career on track. She's up at the crack of dawn for the morning shift at the canteen, and in between giving music lessons to the neighborhood kids, she's practicing for her own shows later that night. Somewhere amidst the hectic schedule, she needs to find time to be a mother to her two teenage boys; one of which suffers from brain damage, while the other is being wooed into his first mature, sexual relationship with the opposite sex. And the more Jean fights for control, the harder it becomes for her to just let go.
Unlike the rambunctious Jean, her son Tim (Khan Chittenden) has always taken a backseat when it comes to his mother's exploits. Thus, he's quiet, respectful and unprepared for what life has in store for him. That's because his Mum controls every aspect of his life; not even his father (another has-been performer working security at the local market, while mounting what he thinks will be a legendary comeback) is allowed into his personal space without Jean, his ex-wife, intruding. Things become problematic for everyone when Jill (Emma Booth) enters the equation. Pretty, petite and way more experienced (in the relationship department) than Tim, Jill immediately confuses her new boyfriend's cold, rock-hard exterior with her own self-conscious interior; automatically cycling through the various reasons ("My breasts are too small, I know") why Tim has a hard time getting close to another woman. She'll soon learn that she's not the only woman in his life, and a subsequent battle between old and new -- what's familiar and what's not -- will ensue, leaving both Jean and Jill struggling for acceptance from a kid who doesn't know what that word even means.
It's hard enough delivering this premise without handing us something predictable, campy and over-the-top, yet director Cherie Nowlan succeeds in giving us a film that's not only hysterical and poignant, but also pretty damn sexy. The initial sexual encounters between Tim and Jill are so real and awkward, you're left blushing -- to a point where you feel sort of intrusive. Emma Booth is at times both delicious and self-destructive, and when Tim is reluctant to let her in (even though he's quite obviously head over heels for the girl), it's hard not to silently pray everything will somehow work out for the two. What makes it even harder is Jean's constant trickery; ignoring Jill when she enters the room, making fun of her to the girl's face, or -- even worse -- consistently calling her by the wrong name, which also happens to be that of Tim's ex-girlfriend. While some might find it odd that Jill doesn't remove herself from the situation right away, there's something to be said for a person (and a character) who fights for a love she knows is there, even if it's just hiding behind its mother for the time being.
Speaking of, the film ultimately belongs to Brenda Blethyn. Her performance as an outspoken, self-absorbed mother teetering on the verge of a mid-life crisis is fun and alive, albeit a bit too much at times. Like her character, Blethyn takes control of every scene she's in (and even those where she doesn't appear), considerably upping the ante as it becomes apparent she's slowly losing that with which means the most in her life; her two boys. It's a difficult character to pull off effectively, and Nowlan certainly pushes the boundaries a little too close to bland cinematic melodrama before reeling us back to earth. Tim's other brother, Mark, provides a lot of the film's comic relief. While Richard Wilson's take on a teenager with mental and physical disabilities is borderline unrealistic (the actor often has a hard time staying in character while delivering his lines), there's enough effort there to allow us to go along for his ride.
Apparently, the script (penned by Keith Thompson) is based on the writer's own experiences of growing up in a family of entertainers. Their household isn't normal; there's always rehearsing and gigs to prepare for. Memories are given titles ("The Sea World Story," The Kentucky Fried Chicken Story"), as if they were staged events instead of natural occurrences. And worst of all, mom and dad are so focused on achieving the level of greatness they dreamed about as children that the hopes and dreams of their own little ones are somehow shoved to the side so that they're available to assist in any way possible. Eventually, as is the case in most of our lives, each character is forced to confront their problems head on, and the ending is every bit as satisfying as you'd hope it would be. Just don't forget to bring the tissues. While Introducing the Dwights might not be as wildly entertaining as last year's Little Miss Sunshine, there's certainly a little bit of something in there for everyone to enjoy.