Kristen Stewart is utterly fearless in "Welcome to the Rileys." That's the takeaway from the film's world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday afternoon. You can quibble all you want with her portrayal of a 16-year-old runaway turned stripper and prostitute. But you cannot walk away from a viewing and say the actress doesn't fearlessly expose herself physically and emotionally, and doesn't do so with astonishing maturity and believability.
Working the lap dance rooms and seedy motels of New Orleans, Stewart's character (real name Allison, working girl name Mallory and many others) is a damaged runaway with a filthy mouth and an even filthier idea of how to make money. There is little sexy about this teen, as she's prayed on by faceless men; the camera catches every pimple, every dark circle under her eye, every strand of stringy hair that has seen far too much strip club cigarette smoke and not enough shampoo (and no, she does not once get naked). Her life is going nowhere until a plumbing supply salesman named Doug Reily (James Gandolfini) shows up and takes Allison under his wing.
Doug, too, is a runaway, fleeing a home life that has collapsed after his 15-year-old daughter's death, a trauma that has left his wife Lois (Melissa Leo) an anxiety-ridden shut-in. He cleans Allison up, refuses her sexual advances, and what develops between the two is a dysfunctional but sweet father/daughter relationship.
What to make of Gandolfini? On the one hand, his Doug presents an enrapturing mix of grizzly bear and puppy dog, a shell of a man struggling with unspeakable loss and fighting to find a reason to rise each morning. On that other hand, he tries on—and just as easily drops—a terrible southern accent, depending on the scene. The result is a frustrating hodgepodge of a performance that had so much potential to be great.
Melissa Leo, meanwhile, is nothing short of spectacular. With one expression—a shifting of the eyes, a downturn of the lips—the actress can communicate exactly what Lois is feeling, and what's more, she can make the audience empathize with her. Leo's lines are alternately funny and heartbreaking, and you root for her as such overcomes incapacitating anxiety to join Doug in New Orleans and find in Allison the daughter they once lost. It becomes clear they're all damaged, and they all need each other.
The film, no doubt, has its share of flaws, from intermittent pacing issues to frequent disruptive arguments that seem to arise from storytelling requirements rather than the relationships and developments between characters. But the script thankfully avoids the clichés and storybook ending to which lesser films might have given in.
In 'Rileys,' Twilighters will find nothing so much to be shocked by, rather than the fulfillment of a promise Stewart has been hinting at since 2002's "Panic Room": the woman is a fine, fine actress.