Wah-Wah (United Kingdom/France/South Africa, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

As coming of age stories go, Wah-Wah does little to distinguish itself. Based on the memories of actor-turned-director/writer Richard E. Grant, the bland film loses its focus early during the proceedings and never gets it back. With the late 1960s independence of Swaziland from Great Britain forming the political backdrop, Wah-Wah takes us through the adolescent struggles of Ralph Compton (played by Zachary Fox at first, then by Nicholas Hoult): his battles with his alcoholic father, Harry (Gabriel Byrne); his love/hate relationship with his absent mother, Lauren (Miranda Richardson); his warming interaction with his American step-mother, Ruby (Emily Watson); and his infatuation with a local girl (Olivia Grant). The problem with so much going on is that nothing gets the development it deserves. Wah-Wah comes across as derivative and perfunctory - a painless but forgettable journey across familiar cinematic territory.

The setting and time period are unique, but underused. The film transpires during the early 1970s (time shifting Swaziland's independence forward by about four years), but fails to exploit the upheaval that the split from Great Britain was causing to English families living in Africa. Like many of the other elements found in Wah-Wah, it's there to the extent that we catch isolated glimpses of it, but it isn't presented in a compelling fashion. Grant seems more interested in using this symbolically in conjunction with his young protagonist achieving his freedom than as a legitimate plot lynchpin.

Ralph's life begins to spin out of control when his mother abandons his father to run off with her lover. This results in Harry taking to the bottle and Ralph going to boarding school. Two years later, he returns home to find his father newly married to a brassy American. But, while Ruby welcomes Ralph home with open arms, alcohol makes Harry a Jekyll and Hyde. By day, he's a respected member of the community, but by night, he becomes cruel and dangerous, even going so far as to point a gun at his son. Ruby's departure and Lauren's return further complicates Ralph's life, and he seeks solace as a singer/actor in a local production of the play "Camelot" that the community it producing to honor Swaziland's Independence Day.

Although Gabriel Byrne turns in a credible performance as an alcoholic caught in an all-too-familiar cycle, and Miranda Richardson oozes selfishness as the cold, calculating Lauren, the remainder of the roles are not as well cast. Zachary Fox is fine as the young Ralph, but Nicholas Hoult is unable to pick up the reins effectively when they are passed to him. His performance is mechanical and unaffecting. The normally reliable Emily Watson, on the other hand, goes over the top, playing the American Ruby as a stereotype with little subtlety.

Wah-Wah provides occasionally affecting moments (such as the touching final scene) that offer the unfulfilled promise of a better story. However, despite everything that happens between the opening and end credits, the unevenness of the pacing results in a production that feels longer than its 97 minutes. And it is both surprising and disappointing that an actor of Richard E. Grant's stature proves unable to provoke better performances from some of his stars. Overall, the plot of Wah-Wah is as unmemorable as the title (which refers to Ruby's likening of certain British expressions - like "Cheerio pip" - to baby talk).

Wah-Wah (United Kingdom/France/South Africa, 2005)

Director: Richard E. Grant
Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson, Nicholas Hoult, Julie Walters, Zachary Fox, Celia Imrie, Julian Wadham
Screenplay: Richard E. Grant
Cinematography: Pierre Aïm
Music: Patrick Doyle
U.S. Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Company
Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 2006-05-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1