Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Playroom (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Playroom

"The Playroom" is an indie return from last year's Key West Film Festival, directed by Julie Dyer.

The story focuses on the Cantwell Family and a group of kids, who are all well drawn, and their coping mechanisms in dealing with their dysfunctional and polyamorous parents, circa 1970.

Although the film is headlined by the excellent John Hawkes as the dad, the real highlights are the children. There is Maggie (Olivia Harris) who identifies with Patty Hearst, the cynical and sneaky Christian (Jonathan McClendon), the goody-two shoes Janie (Alexandra Doke) and the imaginative Sam (Ian Veteto). The Cantwell kids are neglected and verbally abused, treated as pawns in their parent's mind games. Because of this, they take up refuge in the attic where they are free to create their own wilderness and whimsy.

They tell elaborate stories of piracy and space travel, of marooned ships and meteorites. As each upsetting adult scene plays out below the kids, the tales  become more and more detailed.

When the mother (Molly Parker) returns from work, she is seen from far away, shot from ground level as a fragmented being: a pair of hands and feet that walk through a daily routine. Mom speaks in a halting stilted manner. She is a somnambulist in beige.

The dad, for his part is just as soporific with an odd fetish for spelling and all things technical.

The children hop about and forage for food, expressing pithy things to each other about brain-washing and society.

Although the film's drama is a bit tepid, It has an eerie feel that captures the 1970s very well, non withstanding its debt to Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm" and the fiction of A.M. Homes.

The scenes of the kids scurrying about like dark-ribboned raccoons while the parents carry on their incessant maudlin charades are right on target. John Hawkes and Molly Parker also give the drama enough tension, although the confrontations seem a bit kitschy and melodramatic.

The most powerful images remain the children speaking alone as a camera creeps along the floor to capture all the orange and brown shag claustrophobia. A sable slated suburban roof at three a.m. is almost as frightening as a 1970s horror shocker as the youngsters climb to the roof. The nocturnal lights of a swimming pool tell of the eerie bestial behavior of the manipulative mother within.

Even though "The Playroom" is more style than original substance, it succeeds well in visually capturing an era. The film proves that the 70s can spell haunt and fear, in spite of the Naugahyde and fuzzy toilet seats or perhaps, more accurately, because of them.

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