There’s a reason psychotherapists are bound to confidentiality, and it may not be simply to protect the privacy of patients. It might be to protect the rest of us from having to vicariously experience everyone else’s childhood trauma.
The first half of “Wah-Wah,” actor Richard E. Grant’s writing and directing debut, is a taxing, often exasperating dramatization of his appalling childhood in Swaziland in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
While the movie gradually turns to a slight sense of optimism, “Wah-Wah” feels like Grant’s breakthrough session in therapy, where all the pent-up dirt of his youth spills out.
It might be catharsis for Grant, but it puts the audience through the wringer without offering much insight into why the film’s maternal figure (Miranda Richardson) is so heartlessly unfaithful or why the father figure (Gabriel Byrne) is such a strange mix of big-hearted dad by day, abusive boozehound by night.
If even half of what’s depicted on film actually happened to Grant, it goes a long way to explain the wry sneer and undercurrent of weary contempt mastered on-screen by the co-star of films such as “The Player,” “Gosford Park” and “Withnail & I.”
The film centers on Grant’s young alter ego, Ralph Compton, played briefly by Zachary Fox at age 11 and by Nicholas Hoult at age 14 and beyond. The family lives in Swaziland near the end of British rule, with Ralph’s father, Harry (Byrne), working as minister of education.
At the outset, Ralph’s mother, Lauren (Richardson), cuckolds his dad with a family friend and eventually runs off with him.
From the nervous tic Ralph has developed — a cross between a grimace and a sudden yawn — it’s clear he already was coping with a home life fraught with enmity and friction.
Lauren’s departure exacerbates Harry’s drinking, and after already having witnessed his mother’s adultery at close range, Ralph now is subjected to his father’s alcoholic bouts, which begin jovially but inevitably become bellicose.
As the abandoned wife of Lauren’s lover, Julie Walters offers some sadly comic highlights, her lonely character boozing it up alongside Harry with blowzy glee. Byrne is so extreme in depicting Harry’s binges, though, his performance sometimes devolves into caricature.
After three years at boarding school, Ralph returns home to find that Harry has remarried. His new wife, Ruby (Emily Watson), is an American who worked as a stewardess and has nothing but derision for the pretensions and class distinctions of the British expatriates living in the dusty land.
“Wah, wah, wah, wah,” Ruby calls all the snobby trappings and weird British slang, such as “toodle-pip” and “hobbly-jobbly.”
To his surprise, Ralph forms a strong bond with the tender Ruby, who encourages his interest in puppetry and other artistic endeavors, including a local production of “Camelot” that becomes a lingering, amateur-hour centerpiece to the last half of the film.
Early on, the characters are loud and superficial, their only variety in swinging from boorishness to beastly behavior. Grant eventually infuses some humanity and compassion into the Comptons and their little social circle, “Wah-Wah” capturing touching moments of first love, youthful friendship and familial devotion through the harshest of crises.
To his credit, Grant waxes wistful, but never romantic, about his youth. You sense he had clear affection for many of the people on whom the characters are based, but Grant calls them as he saw them, depicting their cruelty, jealousy and racism along with their occasionally endearing quirkiness.
“Wah-Wah” had to be a wonderfully therapeutic exercise for Grant. But his childhood demons make for an unenlightening horror show for most everyone else.