Cheeky by David Thewlis
As I was going through the list of films I saw in Toronto and putting together my thoughts so I could start on my reviews, there was one title that kept evading me. I knew I’d seen 11 films, but only 10 came to mind. And then it suddenly dawned on me that David Thewlis’ Cheeky was the missing film. It’s a shame I let this film slip from my mind so easily, because it was one of the more enjoyable films that I caught at this year’s Festival.
David Thewlis plays Harry Sankey, a somewhat eccentric toyshop owner who is happily married to Nancy. Nancy seems to understand him better than anyone else, encouraging and supporting his eccentricities. And they have a teenage son, Sam, who adores his mom. All in all, the family seems to have a great life, and the interaction between Harry and Nancy is priceless to watch, especially when he receives her daily letters in the mail.
Sadly, that all comes to an end when a freak fire burns down the Sankey’s house and kills Nancy. The tragedy drives a wedge between Harry and Sam, bringing to light issues that had been buried while Nancy was alive. Sam blames Harry for his mother’s death, and Harry is too shell-shocked to take care of himself, much less mend his relationship with Sam.
After the funeral, Harry just sort of drifts through life. Out of sorrow, he begins to question his marriage, especially when he reads Nancy’s last letter. Was he a good husband? Did Nancy truly love him? Was she about to leave him? In the midst of these doubts, a surprising letter arrives in the mail. It seems that Nancy had signed Harry up for a popular gameshow as a joke, knowing that the meek and timid Harry would never do such a thing. With some encouragement from his sister-in-law and his neighbors, Harry comes to believe this letter to be Nancy’s last request. And so off he goes to London to appear on Cheeky, a crude gameshow where much of the appeal comes from watching the contestants get, well, cheeky with one another, trading insults during bonus rounds.
Of course, Sam can’t believe that his father would do something like this so soon after his mother’s death, which intensifies his hatred towards Harry. After all, while Harry’s off gallivanting about London, the school bullies are constantly tormenting Sam and insulting his family. It’s hard not to sympathize with Sam, who feels like he’s the only one who is properly grieving.
But Harry isn’t exactly on vacation when he’s in London. He’s quite uncomfortable on TV, and has trouble hurling insults at people while still feeling so melancholy inside. Making things more complex for him is Nancy Grey, one of the other Cheeky contestants. Nancy is obviously becoming attracted to her sullen opponent, and only becomes more intrigued when the still-grieving Harry resists her advances. But in spite of everything, Harry — who has a knack for remembering useless bits of information, which comes in quite handy on the gameshow — advances through Cheeky’s ranks until he makes it to the final rounds. But at the same time, he risks alienating Sam for good and tarnishing the memory of his beloved wife.
Cheeky could easily have become sappy and melodramatic, but a couple of things really make this film work as well as it does. First, the film delivers solid performances all around, beginning with Thewlis (who also wrote and directed the movie) as the mourning widower. His long face, with its baggy eyes and tired expressions, and body language perfectly convey the sense of a man so wounded by loss he can barely function. Even the effort of smiling seems like it will push him past the point of collapse. Opposite Thewlis is the fiery acting of Sean Ward, who plays Sam with the right mixture of anger and fragility. No matter how much Sam claims to hate his father, it becomes increasingly clear that he still needs his father and wants to put things right. It’s just impossible for him to find the right words in the midst of all of his grief.
Second, the film has a wonderful sense of humor, which might sound like an odd thing to say about film dealing with death and grief. Cheeky is described as a black comedy but that description doesn’t seem quite accurate; the humor never feels mean-spirited, twisted, or really all that dark. Instead, it feels warm and human, perhaps a bit awkward, and often full of love and concern.
There’s some brilliant slapstick involving Harry’s brother-in-law (who’s a bit of a boob to begin with), and a humorous discussion that takes place amongst Harry’s family about whether or not they should use the word “death” around him. But the funniest scenes in the movie involve Harry’s neighbors and their often bumbling but always well-intentioned attempts to support him. Any time the whole village gathers together to watch Harry on the telly is enjoyable, not just because the villagers are all eccentric and quirky in their own ways, but also because they obviously love and support Harry.
Because of this warm sense of humor, I hesitate calling Cheeky a black comedy. Some of the humor might be a bit, well, questionable at times, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find plenty of heart and meaning in it. Even the most awkward of scenes, such as when Harry awakes to find himself in bed with Nancy, are used to bring about reconciliation rather than cheap, mean laughs (or worse).
Cheeky’s method of dealing with loss might be a bit unorthodox, but there are no great twists and turns in Cheeky. The film’s ending is never really in doubt. But what makes the film so enjoyable is what transpires between Harry and Sam, between Harry and Nancy, and with all of the other characters. The film ends on a happy and fulfilling note, but one that is far more meaningful and poignant because of the grief and sadness we’ve seen the characters endure.