Introducing the Dwights (aka Clubland) (2007): Aussie Dramedy

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

When this gently affecting Australian comedy-drama premiered at Sundance earlier this year, it came burdened with the generic, misleading title of Clubland. While its new title, Introducing the Dwights, may not be that evocative either, it does better suggest the films central theme: the difficulties of living in an attention-craving showbiz family. Director Cherie Nowlan and screenwriter Keith Thompson tell a somewhat familiar coming-of age tale, but their largely dispassionate tone gives such soft material a necessary edge.

Tim Dwight (Khan Chittenden) lives at home with his older brother Mark (Richard Wilson), who is intellectually disabled, and his mother Jean (Brenda Blethyn), an aging stage performer and comedienne. Most of Tims life consists of playing personal assistant to his mom, calming her insecurities, catering to her needs, and driving her to gigs at a local dive. In the same town lives his father John (Frankie J. Holden), a washed-up singer still clinging to the warm memories of a chart hit he enjoyed 25 years ago. Divorced and working as a security guard, John hopes to remake himself as a country artist, but his future prospects look as dim as Jeans.

Between his high-maintenance mother, delusional father, and differently abled brother, Tim knows he doesnt lead a conventional adolescents life. But this realization becomes even clearer once he starts dating Jill (Emma Booth), who as an outsider has a difficult time adjusting to his odd family. For her part, Jean immediately starts behaving rudely to Jill, secretly fearful that Tims new love will try to steal him away for her.

Introducing the Dwights was inspired by writer Keith Thompsons earliest memories of watching his mothers club band perform in England, and certainly the film feels authentic in its portrayal of the unconventional world of a performing family. While director Cherie Nowlan overdoes the quirkiness, occasionally tipping Tims mother and father toward caricature, Introducing the Dwights works best when it views these luckless characters through a detached lens, asking the audience to neither love nor mock them but to understand them.

That tricky balance plays out most profoundly in Blethyns performance as the drama-queen family matriarch. Jean is a petty, self-absorbed, despicable woman, but Blethyn gives her enough scared vulnerability that, even when shes acting unconscionably, we see how her cruelty is her last grasp at retaining control over a long-dormant career and her two sons who are growing up. The character comes to represent the desperate denial of all entertainers who should move forward with their lives but instead cling to blind faith that theyre one break away from the big time.

By contrast, Tims romance with Jill plays out in a pedestrian fashion, hitting all the expected coming-of-age story beats. It doesnt help the cause that Emma Booth fails to be an engaging presence. While Jill is meant to be an insecure, somewhat unhappy young woman a counterpoint to Jeans voracious neediness Booth doesnt supply her character with the same layers that Blethyn manages.

At its heart, Introducing the Dwights is Tims story as he decides between his loyalty to his mother and his feelings for Jill, but his love affair doesnt seem very ideal, which lessens the power of this would-be emotional triangle. Additionally, Thompsons script repeatedly makes Jill act unnecessarily impatient with Tim because of his moms selfish behavior, creating artificial tension in their relationship.

Holden is quite good as the flailing father who shifts uncomfortably into middle age. Chittenden possesses the right amount of sheltered innocence and simmering frustration as Tim, a character who is beginning to question his duty to his impossible family.

Much of Introducing the Dwights avoids sentimentality, so its unfortunate that Nowlan allows the films ending to become indigestibly saccharine and forced. Undoubtedly, after putting the Dwights through a series of difficult emotional encounters, Nowlan felt they deserved a brief ray of light at the conclusion. But tonally, the resolution doesnt match with the reserved style of the rest of the movie, which has argued that the Dwights need to get their heads out of the clouds and accept reality. Thus it seems odd that the filmmakers decide to give their characters a happy ending that rewards them for their dream-weaving behavior.

Credits

Running time: 104 minutes

Director: Cherie Nowlan
Production companies: Goalpost Film, Shaffestbury Films, Sunday Night Movies, Palace Films, RB Films
US distribution: Warner Independent Pictures
Producer: Rosemary Blight
Executive producers: Scott Garvie, Ben Grant, Cass OConnor, Tristan Whalley, Antonio Zeccola
Screenplay: Keith Thompson
Cinematography: Mark Wareham
Editor: Scott Gray
Production design: Nell Hanson
Music: Martin Armiger

Cast

Jean (Brenda Blethyn)
Tim (Khan Chittenden)
Jill (Emma Booth)
John (Frankie J. Holden)
Mark (Richard Wilson)