Rather oddly titled for what’s basically a sentimental family pic, “Sex, Death and Bowling” mixes numerous formulaic, overfamiliar elements that never quite gel. Chief among them are the precocious kid protagonist; underdog sports-team comedy; a gay-positive, anti-bullying message; and three generations of dysfunction healed by terminal-illness tearjerking. There’s no absolute reason these elements couldn’t work — together or at least individually — but they never quite do in veteran TV actress Ally Walker’s pedestrian first feature as writer-director. A medium-wattage cast will ensure some sales for a film whose logical destination is as a passable time-filler for cable and streaming customers. It’s been opening on single screens in scattered markets since Oct. 30.
Eli McAllister (Joshua Rush) is a sixth grader whose voiceover narration immediately informs us he’s one of those only-in-the-movies children who apparently think in the prepackaged wisdoms of a middle-aged Hollywood scenarist. His cutesy musings on God and the afterlife, which lead him to “interview” with representatives of various churches, do have an underlying motivation: His Iraq-veteran father Rick (Bailey Chase) is dying from cancer, and his mother, Glenn (Selma Blair), is a mess as a result, so their only child has fixated on the hope of reincarnation or some other supernatural solution to the family crisis. Not much help is curmudgeonly grandfather, Dick (Daniel Hugh Kelly), a bowling fanatic who’s stopped visiting his eldest son, as he can’t bear a repeat of the first wife’s death that he didn’t handle well, either. Second wife Evie (Melora Walters) is now the glue that holds the McAllisters together, with Eli also acting as generational go-between.
Returning after a long absence to their Southern California small town is Rick’s sibling Sean (Adrian Grenier), who’s gone from being a picked-on high schooler (as seen in gauzy flashbacks) to a famed fashion designer living in England. While here to see his brother one last time, he’ll have to attempt some kind of reconciliation with dad Dick, who drove him away in the first place over some murkily explained scandal. Meanwhile, Eli is being bullied by classmates in an echo of his gay uncle’s formative travails; the distraught Glenn is taking out her frustrations on hospice nurse Ana (Drea de Matteo); and a series of injuries forces cantankerous Dick to accept underage Eli, athletically disinclined Sean and dweeby African-American newcomer Ben (Wayne Wilderson) as emergency teammates for an all-important local bowling match.
While some conflicts are rather poorly developed, they’re all predictably resolved, and the cluttered narrative nonetheless frequently manages to feel momentum-challenged. Part of the problem is that tonally, the individual parts don’t mesh at all, leaving the pic to seesaw awkwardly between maudlin and more farcical elements, none of which are inspired.
Performances are competent, but better the more restrained they are. Thus Grenier, Chase, Waters and de Matteo are fine, while Kelly’s character wavers between brutish and comic caricature, and Blair tries to convey a dark emotional complexity that the script never quite gets a grasp on. Already a 5-year showbiz vet at age 11 when the pic was shot two years ago, Rush here comes off as the kind of overly facile little performer who is not at risk of providing a genuine moment.
Sum results are never convincing, let alone as funny or touching as intended. But they’re innocuous enough (despite some unwisely R-rating-necessitating F-bombs of the “maggot” rather than “muck” kind) to work for tube audiences in search of entertainment that hits the right safe, anticipated emotional and narrative beats. Tech/design contributions are routinely pro, with the exception of one cutout-style animated sequence that’s quite charming. (Another anomalous bit, a brief, hapless pseudo-Bollywood “dance,” is utterly charmless). Various-artist cuts on the soundtrack seem to have been picked for their blandness.