Veteran character actor Richard E. Grant makes his writing and directing debut with this self-indulgent, semiautobiographical tale based on Grant's own upbringing as the child of British expatriates in Swaziland in the 1960s and '70s. We first meet the Grant stand-in, Ralph, at 11 years old. Ralph's father, Harry (Gabriel Byrne), is the country's education minister, a very prestigious position, but his mother, Lauren (Miranda Richardson), is tired of living in Africa and tired of Harry, so she has an affair and ends up walking out on the family.
Three years later, Ralph (now Nicholas Hoult) is back from boarding school to find his father a hopeless alcoholic married to American flight attendant Ruby (Emily Watson, clearly enjoying playing a brash American). Ralph endures bitter disputes between his parents and his father's constant state of drunkenness, all against the backdrop of Britain's emancipation of Swaziland.
While this is clearly a very personal film for Grant, and he seems to want to tackle some serious issues, his vision is too clouded by nostalgia to be truly compelling. Every scene of Harry in a drunken stupor or Lauren using her son to manipulate one of her lovers is counterbalanced by rosy, often saccharine scenes of Ralph rehearsing for a local production of Camelot or palling around with his best friend. Although a little lip service is given to the inequality between the natives and their overlords, for the most part this film could have taken place in a rural area anywhere in Britain.
It's not primarily Grant's lack of political consciousness that holds the film back, though. Although based on his own experiences, the portrait of divorce is familiar from dozens of TV dramas and heavy-handed films, and Wah-Wah flits from crisis to crisis without any sense of urgency or emotional weight. Hoult is a likable enough actor, but he's never able to make Ralph feel three-dimensional. Like a fuzzy memory, Wah-Wah has a pleasant feel, but loses its fidelity in the details.