From Breaking The Waves onward, Emily Watson has specialized in squirmy, poignant vulnerability. It's as if the doe-eyed waifs she plays in film after film lack some protective layer of insulation and are powerless to withstand the bitter winds of fate. For this reason, it's enormously refreshing to see her cast against type as a spunky firecracker of an ex-stewardess in Richard E. Grant's affecting semi-autobiographical coming-of-age comedy-drama Wah-Wah, especially since so many of her co-stars prove victims of typecasting. Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson turn in their usual fine work here, but they also turn in their usual performances as, respectively, a loving-but-ineffectual father with a weakness for the bottle, and an acid-tongued, emasculating harpy.
About A Boy's Nicholas Hoult co-stars as Grant's surrogate and Byrne and Richardson's son, an angst-ridden, artistically inclined teenager suffocating in the stuffy airlessness of Swaziland as it approaches independence from Great Britain. When his parents' loveless marriage finally implodes, Hoult finds a natural ally in his war on upper-class British pretension in Byrne's new soulmate (Watson), a loveably brash American who sees through the brittle pretensions of a British aristocracy still clinging desperately to the fading glory of a dying empire.
At best, Wah-Wah suggests a British colonial version of The Squid And The Whale, and not just because both films are bittersweet, semi-autobiographical coming-of-age movies about the horrific psychological damage smart upper-class parents inflict on their sensitive adolescent offspring. Wah-Wah's best moments pluck relentlessly at the same raw nerves as Whale; there's a queasy intimacy to the film's first two acts, which are pitched somewhere between bitter comedy and combustible drama. But where Whale sustains that exquisitely tense mood throughout, Grant's film eventually degenerates into a disappointingly conventional coming-of-age drama with an overbearing score. Wah-Wah can't sustain the mastery of its superior first hour, but it maintains a core of truth that sets it apart from less-convincing depictions of boys becoming men.