Sex, Death, and Bowling is an amusing and occasionally touching—if utterly predictable—traipse through family, the afterlife and, well, death and bowling. Sex, despite what the catchy title promises, doesn't make an appearance—probably a wise decision on writer, director and Santa Fe native Ally Walker's part.
Walker, who is known recently for her role as the duplicitous ATF agent June Stahl in FX's Sons of Anarchy, wrote and directed the film, her first; she says that the character of Sean was inspired by her high school friend Tom Ford, the fashion designer who still keeps a Santa Fe hilltop home.
The setting is small-town California, where the McAllister family is coming to terms—or not—with the impending death of Rick (Longmire's Bailey Chase), a blue-eyed, golden-haired Iraq War veteran and high school football hero who is in in-house hospice care.
The film follows Sean (Adrian Grenier), Rick's kid brother, who left home 20 years prior and remade himself into a successful fashion designer in London, as he confronts his uneasy relationship with the two pillars of small-town masculinity: the football team and his business-owner dad. Flashbacks reveal that Sean left home shortly after an illicit locker-room kiss comes to his coach's—then later his father's—attention; he's only been home once since leaving, for his mother's funeral. Eli (Joshua Rush), Rick's 11-year-old son, is coming to terms with his father's impending death by seeking spiritual advice on the afterlife.
Bowling promises the boys a shot at redemption when Dick, Sean and Rick's uptight dad and the jealous defender of a local bowling cup, loses a trusted teammate to a back injury and Sean offers to step up: Dick is skeptical, but his determination to keep the trophy out of the hands of the corpulent, working-class town bullies—who have made it a matter of principle to beat up the sensitive, emotionally complex boys of the McAllister family—overwhelms his pride.
You'll notice I've made no mention of the women in the film, despite the surprising appearance of Drea de Matteo (playing the hospice nurse Ana) and Selma Blair (as Rick's doe-eyed wife). That's because, perhaps a surprise from a female writer and director, the female characters in the film define "supporting cast"—they are convenient props that help move the film forward with soothing words and concerned looks. Elsewhere, Walker's writing gets the job done without much flair, while the actors, for the most part, do their best to deliver their lines naturally.
The film is clearly ambitious: A dizzying number of subplots and minor characters serve as a counterweight to the melodrama of Sean's prior absence and Rick's impending death. Ultimately, however, these narrative techniques fail not on their merits but because the Wonder Bread moral message of the film is so unerringly direct, so rounded at the corners that a surprising ending is entirely unimaginable. The film reminds us again and again, with the subtlety of a vuvuzela in a Quaker meeting, that all will be forgiven if we make peace with those we love before we go.
Sex, Death, and Bowling
Directed by Ally Walker
With Chase, Grenier and Blair
Jean Cocteau Cinema