Introducing the Dwights

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A boy in his late teens experiences a sexual awakening. Heavy-drinking dysfunctional family members yell at each other. A dotty Brit does wacky things for the movie audience’s amusement.

Sound like every Sundance film you’ve ever seen? You win! Specifically, it is “Introducing the Dwights” (a change from its film festival title, “Clubland”), a surface-level examination of family dynamics that can’t escape its trite origins. You get a few laughs, but there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before.

The dotty Brit is Jeannie Dwight (Brenda Blethyn), who years ago left England for Australia, homeland of her husband, John (Frankie J. Holden), from whom she is now separated. She’s raising two sons, Tim (Khan Chittenden) and Mark (Richard Wilson), both around 20 years old, Tim earning money with a small moving company, Mark being sequestered in the house because he’s mildly retarded. Jeannie herself works in a cafeteria, but her dream is to be a comedian. Not just a comedian, though — an entertainer.

The stars in her eyes hearken back to a bygone era, an era of smoky nightclubs, live orchestras, and tuxedoed MCs. An era where her corny, bawdy jokes about men’s sexual failures and women’s constant need to diet would have been considered funny. Evidently that scene is still thriving enough in Australia for Jeannie to make a decent secondary income performing, and she’s something of a celebrity. Still, she never really made it big. Twenty years in and she’s still hoping for her big break.

Tim, the man of the house since Dad left and since Mark is disabled, is industrious and hard-working, and also a bit naive. Jeannie controls her boys’ lives in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the consequence of which is that now, when Tim meets a girl he likes, he’s psychologically unprepared to get physical with her. The girl, Jill (Emma Booth), is patient, but she’s at a loss to explain the power Tim’s mum holds over him.

One curious fact about this film, directed by Cherie Nowlan from Keith Thompson’s screenplay, is that Jeannie is much funnier offstage than on. In her act, her jokes are lame and obvious (though her audiences seem to eat them up). At home, played by the irresistible Brenda Blethyn, she’s often a delight. She’s exactly the kind of sassy, matronly gal you’d love to sit and laugh with.

Except that when it comes to her children, she’s a selfish beeyotch. Bitter at the overall failure of her career, she resents her children for limiting her potential, which they did by being born. She tries to control and sabotage poor Tim’s extra-familial relationships in a most unacceptable fashion, and her primary reason for keeping Mark so over-protected is that she’s embarrassed by him. She’s egregiously flawed as a human being, which is indeed the stuff of drama. Problem is, by the time her character “arcs,” gains some perspective, and is redeemed, it’s too little too late. We’ve spent 90 minutes disapproving of her, and now all her mean behavior is supposed to be OK because she feels sorry?

It’s hard to deny Blethyn’s personal charm, though, even when she’s playing a selfish woman like Jeannie. (It is worth noting that Jeannie does an awful lot of yelling in the film’s last act. A LOT of yelling.) Khan Chittenden and Richard Wilson both give very honest, likable performances as her sons, too. Somewhere beneath all the cliches and one-dimensional conflicts there is probably a very good movie here.

C+ (1 hr., 35 min.; R, a little nudity, some strong sexuality, a lot of harsh profanity and some vulgarity.)