Making her narrative directorial debut, actress Ally Walker‘s earnest, if not subtle Sex, Death and Bowling is by no means a groundbreaking film on any of these three evocative subjects. Attempting a complex tone combining melodrama and quirk, it’s moderately successful on a few fronts. If anything, this picture gets “pre-grieving” right in a few tender moments that resonate deeply. Beyond those moments, the film provides several undercooked sub-plots that made me question if Walker knew who the “A-story” was.
Opening with voice-over introducing us to both professional bowling great Earl Anthony and young Eli McAllister (Joshua Rush), a middle schooler on an emotional journey, we quickly discover Eli’s place within this small knit, semi-rural California community. His father, an Iraq war vet Rick (Bailey Chase), is dying and Eli has made it his business to seek spiritual advice from multiple sources, fearing a man who took lives in combat may be disqualified from heaven.
His uncle, Sean (Adrian Grenier), a fashion designer whose currently on the cover of GQ returns home. He’s hit on by every women in town, from his brother’s nurse Ana (Drea de Matteo) to his prom date whom he shares a strange afternoon with in a moment where the film side-steps actual insight for a montage it didn’t need.
Sean has some baggage to work out, including a strained relationship with his father, Dick (Daniel Hugh Kelly), and other conflict that comes into play when we discover everyone from high school still lives in town. Sean, of course, teams with Eli, who, like the younger Sean, is bullied. Apparently everyone is town knows each other’s business yet still cannot show compassion for a kid losing his father. Maybe “boys will be boys,” but these moments ring patently false.
Taking some narrative risks, including animation in one sweet passage, Sex, Death and Bowling offers some genuinely heartbreaking moments. While a whole film on the grieving process may feel trite, the B- and C-stories feel artificial and undercooked. Excellent actors, including Selma Blair and Melora Walters (as Rick and Dick’s wives), are given too little too do, while the film attempts to tell two stories that don’t quite interlock as effectively as they ought to: a coming out story and a sports story centered upon the upcoming Fiesta Cup at the local bowling alley.
Sex, Death and Bowling isn’t a bad film, recalling the quirky drama of Ed, the NBC show that ran for a few years centered around a small town bowling alley and the town’s quirky residents. At least people still bowl in this community, which becomes a proxy for a new generation of family rivalries that in context seem like artificial plot devices, an element that feels too cruel for a film that some of the time has its heart in the right place.
Sex, Death and Bowling is now in limited release.