Jun 21, 2006 at 12:00 am

Wah-Wah, actor Richard E. Grant's screenwriting and directorial debut, is a semi-autobiographical account of coming of age in an antiquated outpost of British colonial Swaziland. The story is set amid a community of British officials on the brink of being tossed out on their cans during the empire's last days in the African country in the late 1960s.

Grant inserts his formative experiences into the story of young Ralph (About a Boy's Nicholas Hoult), whose African experience looks more like a suburban nightmare than an exotic safari. His Swaziland is one where elitist and racist adults rely on copious amounts of gin, gossip and infidelity to relieve the boredom of their isolation.

Ralph's drama begins when he witnesses his mom's affair with another man. (He has a life-scarring backseat view to their front-seat rendezvous. Eew.) Ralph is shipped off to boarding school, mom Lauren (Miranda Richardson) runs off with her lover, and dad Harry (Gabriel Byrne) turns to the bottle, facing the end of his marriage as well as the likely end of his job serving the queen in Swaziland.

When Ralph returns a few years later, he meets his new stepmother Ruby (Emily Watson), a former airline "hostess" and an American ex-pat whom his father has known all of six weeks. She storms into Ralph's Swaziland and immediately dismisses the little society's stuck-up niceties and snooty colloquialisms as nothing but "wah-wah." Storm is the operative word: Watson works with force, and her slight smirk, confident strut, witty retorts and blue-eyed glare cut through this overly polite film.

Grant digs deep, ugly pits of alcoholism, abandonment, neglect and social ostracism that, only briefly, swallow up his characters. The problem is he lets everyone off too easy. When things get sloppy, Grant's answers are too polite. Colonial Swaziland may feel like a warped Desperate Housewives' Wysteria Lane, only one where people say things like "hobbly jobbly" and "toodle-pip" between cocktails and trysts; but Wah-Wah's conclusions are all-too 7th Heaven — too clean and easily digestible. During one drunken fit, for example, Harry gets angry and pulls a gun on Ralph; yet it takes only a few scenes for father and son to make nicey-nice again.

Such soft consequences are ill-fitting. Grant's film is a great setup to explore the racism, elitism and politics of the British Empire, as well as teen angst and post-divorce turmoil. But possibly he's too close to his subjects and too steeped in childhood nostalgia to let his characters suffer for long. Like they say, no pain no gain, and what's lost here is drama with impact.

Grant's affection for his colonial comrades and his capacity for forgiveness is notable; but Wah-Wah's limp approach is like saying "toodle-pip" when you should really scream "See ya!" and slam the door.


Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].