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BETWEEN WHIMSY AND DYSFUNCTION IN `WAH-WAH'.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

Richard E. Grant, the smart, lanky English actor (``Withnail and I,'' ``Gosford Park''), grew up in the small African country of Swaziland, where his father worked for the last British colonial government before independence.

``Wah-Wah,'' which Grant wrote and directed, is his fictionalized coming-of-age story. It's fairly interesting and certainly unique, what with its expatriate twits at the end of their wits and arm's-length appreciation of dawning equality for the African majority.

But other than that, it's somewhat standard storytelling. A sensitive boy approaches manhood while infidelity, alcoholism and a stepmother with strange ways upend his comfy home, and he finds some kind of solace in rebellion and the arts. No doubt Grant experienced a lot of what's depicted, and he certainly captures it persuasively. A crack cast does the best it can with the perceptive but often unexciting material, too. In the end, a movie that could have been simultaneously universal and exotic comes off, for the most part, fairly mundane and odd.

It starts off quite shockingly, though, with a brazen act of adultery on the part of young Ralph Compton's mother. Played as a preteen by Zachary Fox, Ralph loves his mum, Lauren (Miranda Richardson), and despite her carrying on, the affection seems more or less mutual.

But Lauren has had it up past her neck with her ineffectual husband Harry (Gabriel Byrne). The minister of education, Harry's a nice guy when he's sober, but his wife's infidelity and fears about his post-colonial job prospects make him a mean drunk. After Lauren runs off with her lover, Harry gets worse. For the good of all concerned, resentful Ralph is shipped off to boarding school.

Returning two years later, now played by ``About a Boy's'' Nicholas Hoult, Ralph finds Harry more dissolute than ever. Even more disturbing, he's neglected to inform his son that he's remarried. To a gauche American, no less. Who was, even more embarrassing, an airline stewardess.

Emily Watson's Ruby, however, is determined to connect with her reluctant stepson. Her clever vulgarity -- the film's title is her term for silly-sounding English turns of phrase -- strikes Ralph as a good way to stick it to the pretentious colonial gentry (it's the late 1960s, after all). They also become close domestic allies as Harry's depression and rages grow more severe.

For fun, there's a goofy production of ``Camelot'' the Brits try to mount in honor of Princess Margaret, who's heading to Swaziland for the independence ceremonies. For angst, there's still Lauren, who keeps popping in, unwelcomed by everybody but her still devoted son. Eventually, an African character or two even gets to do a little more than just act like a happy servant.

Grant clearly made ``Wah-Wah'' with a lot of affection, but not so much that he soft-pedals extremely difficult family dysfunctions. To his credit, Ralph gets no special dispensation; he's as much a whiny brat as he is Mr. Sensitive, Misunderstood Adolescent.

A perfectly respectable filmmaking debut, ``Wah-Wah'' simply leaves us feeling that there could have been more to the story.

Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670

bob.strauss(at)dailynews.com

WAH-WAH - Two and one half stars

(R: sex, language, substance abuse, nudity, racism)

Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Emily Watson, Nicholas Hoult, Miranda Richardson, Julie Walters

Director: Richard E. Grant.

Running time: 1 hr. 37 min.

Playing: Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; ArcLight, Hollywood; Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica; Landmark Westside Pavilion, West Los Angeles; Edwards South Coast Village 3, Costa Mesa.

In a nutshell: Set in the small African nation of Swaziland on the eve of its independence from Britain, unusual coming-of-age story sometimes stumbles into forced melodrama and twitty English whimsy.

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In colonial Swaziland, the divide between father Harry (Gabriel Byrne) and son Ralph (Nicholas Hoult) is made all the wider by depression and alcoholism in ``Wah-Wah.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 12, 2006
Words:644
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