Falling to Pieces
Fierce and blowsy, Jean (Brenda Blethyn) is the kind of movie mother who sucks up all surrounding air. Relocated from Britain to Sydney, Australia, she’s a formerly successful bawdy comedian—“Good evening, ladies and genitalia!”—now relegated to housewifery and disappointment. Channeling her feelings into acerbic jokes at local clubs, she also focuses on her two sons, smothering, doting, and bullying them according to her erratic will.
Ensconced in the working class burbs, the family gets by on Jean’s gigs and her 20-year-old son Tim’s (Khan Chittenden) work as a mover. He’s purchased a truck with her help (which comes with expected “you owe me” ties), not quite imagining a time when he’ll be on his own. When Tim moves Jill (Emma Booth) and her roommate Kelly’s (Katie Wall), he’s instantly smitten. He calls Jill as soon as he gets home: as he stammers and asks for a first date, she beams adorably. They seem generally made for each other, in ways guaranteed to upset the ever inappropriate Jean.
Very pretty, rather vacant, and a virgin, Tim is simultaneously drawn to Jill and dutiful to his mother (he drives her to work each night and, during his date, patiently takes her phone call demanding that he pick up milk on his way home). Jill is everything is mother is and isn’t: a movie-style “free spirit,” she burns incense in her bedroom and keeps a Patti Smith poster on her wall, but she’s also insecure and needy. “I get a little bit scared,” Tim confesses, concerning his sexual awkwardness, whereupon Jill asks, “It has nothing to do with me being an ugly, needful cow?” When Kelly, listening in outside Jill’s door, laughs at the exchange, Tim panics and rushes home to mom. She comforts him, then attacks (“I hope this is not the Samantha story again,” deploying a former girlfriend’s name that will come up repeatedly here). Tim wilts.
Even as the three-way relationship among Tim, Jill, and Jean turns competitive in ways both odd and familiar, a fourth term helps to unsettle all: Tim’s older brother, the very sweet, brain-damaged-at-birth Mark (Richard Wilson). While Jean maintains an especially complicated affection for Mark, tinged with guilt and resentment, Tim is torn now that he has an alternate obligation, worried when he stays away over night, both wanting to bring Jill into the family and flee from it entirely. The sheer noisiness of life at home seems reason enough to seek escape: when Jean isn’t rehearsing her unfunny act, she’s teaching local children to sing, gossiping about her neighbors, or drinking to excess.
Tim doesn’t get much help from Jean’s friends (who tend to placate her) or his dad, John (Frankie J. Holden), an erstwhile country-western singer, now a supermarket security guard, still nursing the wounds inflicted by Jean. When he plays a cut from his new self-produced CD of Conway Twitty covers, the men share a brief reverie, both weighed down by knowing their meeting, even for a few minutes, would displease Jean. Witty and wise, Mark understands Jean’s damage, distracting her so Tim can sneak off and pursuing his own romance with a girl he knows from the differently-abled center (a sideplot that lacks focus). As Mark resists Jean’s efforts to discourage his burgeoning independence, Tim repeatedly tries either to please or deceive her. It’s obvious that each son has developed his own performance mode, having learned from John’s failure how to survive Jean.
Though Jean works hard to keep control of her household, the new family unit embodied by Tim, Mark, and Jill is tritely revealed in a montage at the local ice skating rink, where the threesome bonds while Mark falls again and again to the tune of Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces.” With the end of Jean’s reign in sight, the film goes into overdrive, her anger and misery displayed in a series of increasingly loud and antic episodes. None is especially poignant or revealing, though some are disconcerting (Jean has Tim dress as a woman for one of her stage shows, pretending she’s plucked him from the audience, humiliating him and horrifying Jill).
Yes, pretense and artifice are ways around confrontation and fear for the Dwights. But if Introducing the Dwights is a “quirky family” movie, it’s premised on that most depressing of clichés, the chaotic mom. Jean careens from despair to rage to passion, spinning her emotional satellites into near frenzies. When the film wraps up in an uninspired song-and-dance celebration, the happy smiles are looking forced indeed.