Director: Julia Dyer
We’ve all seen stories about the effect alcoholism has on children – for better, worse, and often somewhere in that underwhelming middle ground. And while I’m not averse to this mold, so long as it’s crafted with care, one of the main pleasures to be found in The Playroom is director Julia Dyer‘s tendency to — sometimes in a literal, visual sense — put the perfunctory conflicts and confrontations that would typically stem from this in the background, opting to place the children of a troubled husband and wife at the center of things.
Set almost exclusively in a suburban home in the fall of 1975, The Playroom revolves around four children (Olivia Harris, Ian Veteto, Jonathon McClendon and Alexandra Doke) living in a household run by two parents (John Hawkes and Molly Parker) who, though not dysfunctional on the surface, are slowly pulling themselves apart with the trappings of alcohol. I know it sounds familiar, but, again: The Playroom is, at its damaged heart, really an examination of the ways in which we sometimes need to rely on our peers when our elders fail us.
This problematic family casts the oldest daughter, Maggie (Harris), despite only being about seventeen, as a surrogate mother of sorts, taking it upon herself to deal with her younger siblings’ problems — mixed report cards and concerns about Patty Hearst among them. Dyer establishes this dynamic visually, employing silent sequences, early on, wherein she removes empty glasses, half-full bottles and cigarette ashes. Quiet and understated, it sums up this situation far better than any kind of emotionally-charged speech could ever hope to.
My primary reason for even checking out The Playroom was John Hawkes. I can’t and won’t be alone in that, yet I wasn’t remotely bothered by what turned out to be highly limited screen time. He basically excels at everything that’s required of him, which includes convincingly playing a loving father, having his “big scene” and delivering everything in a way that makes him hard to forget. That said, it’s not his show. A good majority of the action pertains to four much younger, less experienced actors, all of whom are saddled with humor, sternness, sadness, and naivety, sometimes in the span of two minutes.
So it’s all about them, and it helps that each can bring something different to the table. Harris, as the elder child, carries this obvious, unwanted feeling of authority that’s always at odds – and creates a strange dichotomy – with her young physical stature. McClendon, Doke, and Veteto, though here in more of a supporting capacity, don’t render their characters worthless or extraneous. Instead, their youthful outlook on everything serves as an effective counterpoint to the tragically damaged life of Maggie.
The scenes with Parker and Hawkes tackle more serious issues — alcoholism, infidelity, some nice ennui — but I get the strong inkling Dyer is really treating their own story as nothing more than the “grown-up” version of the children’s games on the house’s roof and in the titular playroom. Heck, one shot blatantly suggests it should be much less of a concern for ourselves, the viewers.
I refer to, in what could only reasonably be deemed their emotional climax, a moment that places Hawkes in the traditional foreground of frame, yet the entire, literal focus plants itself on one of the young boys trying to get bowls for some snuck ice cream. A literal juxtaposition of adulthood’s challenges and childhood’s concerns, if you will.
Ambitious and beautiful though that moment may be, The Playroom does stumble when it takes just a step or two more than is required. There’s this strange, hard-to-justify structure that intersperses the main action with Maggie telling some allegorical story to her siblings by candlelight. (You’ll be notified when it’s time for that little bit whenever a distinct chime plays over the soundtrack.) I have some idea of what was being sought after here, but it’s never intrinsic to the main story. Though there be nothing wrong with these scenes in the film – or their place structurally in the narrative – they come across too clumsy to be included.
But when we move out of these strange portions and back into reality, it’d be remiss not to note the genuine respect Dyer has for this time and place. I feared – as if often the case with works of this sort – that we’d be treated to the typical marks of any period piece: non-diegetic music cues; forced references to, for example, Watergate, quick glimpses of classic TV shows, etc. Rather, she and her sister and co-writer, Gretchen Dyer, have enough faith in the power of their characters to ignore any minute details about the time and place. Patty Hearst only comes up to establish a nice joke and some thematic resonance, for instance, making the film, in certain ways, one of the more accurate depictions of this era I have ever seen. Nothing’s pronounced or accentuated; it’s just the time in which they live, and maybe that isn’t such a terrific thing.
Some of The Playroom’s final shots carry this odd sense of hope and potential, regardless of the negative repercussions it may have for most of the characters at hand. Maybe it isn’t all obvious on first blush, but that’s something one needs to give a little time to before it can fully sink in. The film is replete with these kinds of moments. It’s the type of film one walks out of pleased with, but not floored by. But then, in the time since, you find yourself thinking about these people, who they are, why they’ve taken these courses and what makes them react in these specific ways. Against all odds, I’m happy to say I spent some time with a broken family.
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