The 1970s are a hotbed for dramas of suburban unrest. The 1950s were too repressed and the 1960s were too unhinged, but in American cinema, the ’70s have come to represent the perfect balance of family values struggling against changing social mores. Contemporaneously, Robert Redford’s directorial debut Ordinary People set the template for repressed familial discontent; its influence can be seen most strongly in Sam Mendes’ staggering first feature, American Beauty, itself a watershed moment and a film whose stamp is on innumerable works since.
Unlike much of the American cinema of the 1980s, which was made both for and from the perspective of the iconoclastic adolescent, films from and about the ’70s tend to be more concerned with the family as a unit, even as it splinters and buckles under its own weight. Often comprised of parents who were too old for the revolution of the ’60s and children who were too young, the prototypical ’70s family has come to represent a microcosm of the nation’s changing cultural climate, with the younger generation struggling with the consequences of the responsibility for which it fought so fervently and finding in their elders no sturdy exemplars.
For myself, the two quintessential works of this sub-genre are Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm and Sofia Coppola’s remarkably assured adaptation of The Virgin Suicides. To this list, however, I must now add Julia Dyer’s The Playroom, which peels back the veneer of the model nuclear family to reveal the cracks and strain underneath. Working from a screenplay by her late sister Gretchen, Dyer pulls off an impressive balancing act, crafting a film that is both delicate and unyielding in its depiction of the mounting deception and complacency that eats away the bonds of family from the inside.
Casting is especially key for a film so contained, and here The Playroom excels. As Martin and Donna Cantwell, John Hawkes and Molly Parker are superb. Their actions are not sensational; their responses are not histrionic. The strength of their performances lies especially in the silences, in the things left unsaid between husband and wife, in the way they look — and don’t look — at one another. Indeed, much goes unsaid in The Playroom, not only between husband and wife, but also between parents and children. Like The Ice Storm, Dyer’s film is concerned with how the actions — and the negligence — of the parents affect their children. Unlike that film, however, the Dyer sisters are interested in portraying the action from the vantage of the four Cantwell children, exploring consequence more so than parallel.
The film opens with Janie (Alexandra Doke), Sam (Ian Veteto), Christian (Jonathon McClendon) and Maggie (Olivia Harris) returning home from school to a house littered with cigarette butts, dirty glasses, empty bottles of scotch, LPs out of their sleeves, and garments (both outer- and under-) strewn about the living room. Their routine handling of the clean-up tells us this is not an uncommon state of affairs. As their parents arrive home, they are introduced impressionistically; just as children take the identities of their parents for granted, the first things we see of Martin and Donna are their behaviors. Donna arrives home, two brown-bagged bottles in her hand. She’s already poured and savored a scotch before we see her face, as she calls out into the sepulcher of her home, “Where are my children?” It’s almost supper time and she’s neglected the groceries; looks like it’ll have to be eggs and bacon for dinner.
We first see Martin through the frosted glass of the front stairwell as he pulls into the driveway. Stepping out of his car, he inspects a dent in the fender of Donna’s car and picks up a bicycle left haphazardly on the ground. He dotes on these details, these appearances and procedures, as though he could repair his family from the outside in. He is not so much an optimist as an ostrich, believing that if he ignores a problem it will go away. Through his antipathy, hope, and complacency he has become distant, and from his distance he fears obsolescence. Over dinner, he engages his children by giving them words to spell; it is perfunctory and arcane, but it is also desperate. Martin proclaims, “spelling is a skill, you don’t have to know what a word means in order to spell it,” and we realize he has so blinded himself to the erosion of his and Donna’s relationship that he believes the same is true of family.
Dinner is interrupted when the doorbell rings; it’s the Knotts, Clark (Jonathan Brooks) and Nadia (Lydia Mackay), a married couple whose arrival implicitly signals it’s time for the kids to leave and for the grown-ups to have fun. But there is a growing tension among the four of them which we are only allowed to glimpse in brief, unguarded moments, caught in fractured and fleeting impressions, that belie their jovial facade. As the children clean up and escape to the attic, The Playroom staunchly maintains their perspective; unlike The Virgin Suicides, which allows itself to depict events its protagonists did not personally witness through the narrative conceit of descriptive recollection, The Playroom maintains the primacy of perception, allowing us to receive the gradual disclosure of instigating circumstance through the figurative eyes of the children in general and of Maggie in particular.
In this regard, Maggie is the true star of the film, and Harris’s performance makes for a formidable debut. Maggie is in the unenviable position of holding the family together, and the film’s success rests similarly upon Harris’s capable shoulders. Fiercely independent yet loyal to her family, the sixteen year old whips her younger siblings into an effective and efficient unit, cleaning the house and finishing their homework on time; out of necessity, Maggie takes over where her mother has failed, also mending clothes and signing report cards. Harris excels at showing the interiority of her character, in conveying Maggie’s thoughts without speaking them. One senses the predetermination in her actions; we are aware of when she is responding and when she is reacting.
Donna resents her eldest daughter, resents her freedom and her composure, and instead fawns over Janie, whose polite and studious manner is easier for her to control. Maggie has developed a sympathy for Patty Hearst, the heiress who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army and arrested for robbing a bank while under their influence. She relates to Hearst and takes umbrage with her role in propagating the lie of her family’s wellness, which she views as a form of capture: the prison of appearances. When Martin, a lawyer, disputes Maggie’s description of Hearst as “a resistance fighter” on the grounds that “you have to be occupied to put up a resistance,” Maggie ripostes that “she is occupied, by the system.”
This is where mother and daughter most clearly parallel one another: they both bridle under the yolk of obligation. But where Maggie is superior to Donna is in her definition of “obligation”. Maggie may be idealistic and headstrong, unwavering in her ethics and unabashed in her feminism, but Donna is merely irresponsible. There is no moral code dictating Donna’s behavior; she is selfish and indulgent, an alcoholic who is spiteful rather than considerate of those whom she hurts.
At one point in the film, Janie recalls a story that her mother told her as a young girl: that the night is a blanket God pulls up over the Earth, and the stars are holes in the blanket through which we can still see the sun. When Maggie and Christian correct her, insisting, respectively, that it’s just one of their mother’s “stupid drunk stories,” and that “mom is a well known liar,” she becomes upset. To Janie, the blanket of night is analogous to the image of her mother as a role model, and subsequently to the image of their family as a loving, cohesive unit. When Janie asks her father to assure her that Maggie is lying about God’s blanket, he resigns that “the stars are on fire, and God is very busy.”
In the world of the Cantwell children, Martin and Donna are fallen gods, too involved with their own suffering to recognize the suffering of their family. Through negligence and through denial, they become untethered to one another and shackled to their roles, but it is not just they who suffer for their sins. There is nothing manipulative about the The Playroom‘s subjectivity; on the contrary, it is resolutely committed to achieving a very specific form of phenomenological verity. To this end, Julia and Gretchen Dyer have crafted a subtle, intelligent, and exceptionally touching film about guilt, grief, responsibility, and denial. More than anything, they have made a film about loss: loss of innocence, loss of love, loss of faith, loss of will, and the loss of the ability to believe that which we wish to be true in lieu of that which we must accept as fact.
While the Cantwells and the Knotts are playing poker midway through the film, there is an interaction among the four of them that succinctly encapsulates each one’s temperament. Nadia, somewhat panderingly, makes the open declaration that, “Children are wonderful.” Donna, preferring the emotionally malleable and academically punctilious Janie to the rest of her children, specifies, “This one is.” Clark bitterly counters that, “Children can be selfish, demanding, and cruel.” Martin, meanwhile, maintains his silence; he knows — as the filmmakers do — that the indignation of a child is negligible compared to that which is perpetrated by adults.