What You Missed
Teenage Maggie Cantwell (Olivia Harris, pictured right) and her three younger siblings return home from school to find their parents' suburban living room full of liquor glasses and party detritus — a mess they tidy without comment. Said parents are nowhere to be found.
Mom (Molly Parker, left) eventually arrives while Maggie is attempting to lose her virginity in the garage. Things just get more awkward from there, as Mom swills drink after drink at dinner, banishes the kids upstairs, and flirts with a married neighbor (Jonathan Brooks) as her husband (John Hawkes) looks on.
Meanwhile, upstairs in their attic playroom, the kids build imaginary worlds insulated from the turmoil. Maggie, on the cusp of adulthood, vacillates between her loyalty to her siblings and her urge to escape.
Why You Missed It
Julia Dyer's drama reached 12 U.S. theaters. You may have caught it at the 2012 Vermont International Film Festival; now you can see it on Netflix Instant, Amazon Instant, etc.
Should You Keep Missing It?
If you grew up even partially in the 1970s, The Playroom is sure to strike deep, familiar chords. It covers some of the same territory as Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, but I found it simpler, less pretentious and more effective.
It's also a memorably atmospheric, almost spooky film that manages to make a single house — where all the action takes place on a single day — feel like a country with several contested territories.
Dyer's sister Gretchen wrote the screenplay but died before the film was made. Here's what Dyer says in an interview about its real-life inspiration:
The truest thing for me in the film is what it felt like to be a child, one of a tribe of children, who saw more than we should have, more than we could grasp at the time. We knew the ship was going down but were powerless to stop it, so our best choice was get in the lifeboat together and try to take care of each other while we waited to grow up. That’s the emotional reality of The Playroom, and I think that’s something a lot of people can relate to.
It may be foolish to generalize about generations, but for me, Dyer's description rings true, as do the details packed into the movie. Not everyone back then had a functional alcoholic for a mother, but many of us do remember looking after younger siblings while our parents explored their potential at parties and be-ins and political meetings.
Back then, "kid friendly" wasn't a word you heard often; "independence" was. Through Maggie, the Dyers capture the frustration of knowing that no matter how many adult responsibilities you take on, you're still subject to the whims of elders who act like authority figures mainly when it suits them.
Dyer does a great job with the young actors, though the two boys (Jonathon McClendon and Ian Veteto) have less vivid personalities than Maggie and her younger sister, Janie (Alexandra Doke), whose tension drives the plot. Janie plays the goody-goody, using her cuteness to win attention from her distracted parents; Maggie, the sullen teen, has long since decided their attention isn't worth having.
If the movie has a flaw, it's that the parents aren't sufficiently developed. Hawkes is an amazing actor, but his role here doesn't extend far beyond "ineffectual milquetoast." Parker knows how to play a spacy, inscrutable substance addict — what else was Alma Garrett? — and that's exactly what she is here, in '70s pleats instead of 19th-century crinolines. Her turn as a self-destructive wife is fascinating to watch, but we never discover what drives her beyond selfishness.
Verdict: The Playroom is a small movie, but it fills its niche well and may haunt you afterward.
This Week in Theaters
Likely Oscar contender 12 Years a Slave has arrived at the Roxy and Savoy. So has another Oscar hopeful, the survival drama All Is Lost — at the Savoy only.
Meanwhile, back in the land of blocks to be busted, all hail mighty Thor: The Dark World. About Time brings British time-travel rom-com action to multiplexes.
This Week on Video
As I Lay Dying, Computer Chess, Grown Ups 2, Lovelace, Renoir, White House Down, Brian De Palma's Passion (an MYM waiting to happen), "Mad Men," season 6.