Title: Welcome To Me
Director: Shira Piven
Major Players: Kirsten Wiig, Wes Bentley, Tim Robbins
Out Of Five: 3.5
If you’ve ever had prolonged exposure to American TV, some of Welcome To Me will look morbidly familiar. Not mainstream telly, by the way, but all that low-budget cable stuff that clogs up the channels while you wonder who on earth is actually watching. But don’t think this is a satire on the emptiness of TV. True, there’s some of that in here, but the theme at the heart of the film is far more delicate and challenging to pull off.
Yet it also happens to be a hot topic in the media. Mental health. But director Shira Piven has shrewdly chosen to avoid mental illnesses that will be familiar to a mainstream audience, like depression, bi-polar disorder, even schizophrenia. Instead, she and writer, Eliot Laurence, have chosen something harder to define or pin down. Borderline personality disorder – a condition that central character Alice points out, has been re-named and re-defined several times during her lifetime. Even more challenging is that they’re using it as the basis for a comedy – admittedly a dark one, but a comedy nonetheless.
Alice (Kirsten Wiig) has borderline personality disorder, lives alone, regularly visits her shrink Dr Daryl (silver fox Tim Robbins) but, much to his concern, has taken herself off her meds. Then she wins the state lottery, netting $80 million and decides to follow the advice of her TV idol, Oprah, and fulfil her dream. Her dream is to have her own talk show on TV, a show that’s all about her, so she buys it from a tiny cable channel. Initially awkward in front of the camera, her confidence grows, so does her audience – and the subjects she covers become more outlandish. She achieves something of a cult status, but it comes at a heavy price. Even higher than the show’s production costs.
She’s a lady with an unusual view of reality who’s bought her way into a business that sees the world in an even more distorted way than she does. And she’s made worse by the fact that she calls the shots because she’s paying for it all. It’s a radical change that teaches her about life and herself, even if the long term prospects for the show aren’t good.
The subject matter’s handled with sensitivity and compassion – not in a “there, there” type of way, but showing how the condition can affect sufferers, and making it apparent that it doesn’t come in a standard format. Alice isn’t unpleasant, but there’s a distance between her and other people and she seems to be short of an empathy gene. Nor does she understand what is acceptable on TV and what isn’t – which is why she finds herself frequently cut off mid-sentence: her sexual references and explicit language aren’t exactly a great fit for anodyne daytime telly. The lawsuits from her regular slandering of people in her past come later!
The film benefits hugely from Kirsten Wiig in the lead role, alternating between genuinely funny and moments of blistering reality. It’s the latter than makes her compulsive on TV and, of course, on the internet. She bursts into tears live on air, loses her rag and those moments of raw reality are hideously painful, not just for her but for the audience, who find it utterly compelling.
Welcome To Me first saw the light of day at the Toronto Film Festival in 2014, was released in the States and then on DVD last year and now makes it here, with a limited distribution. It’s not a comedy that you can categorise and that’s probably why it’s taken so long. Worth the wait? As far as Kirsten Wiig is concerned, most certainly.
Welcome To Me is in selected cinemas and exclusively on Sky Store now. It will be reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 31 March.