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The Playroom

2013 | 83 min | R

The Playroom


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Theatrical release date

 08 February, 2013

Country of origin

 United States



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The Playroom Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, February 15, 2013

“The Playroom” is a disappointing film with an intriguing premise. Dealing with insecurities and marital dissolution in the 1970s, it’s fair to compare the feature to Ang Lee’s 1997 effort, “The Ice Storm,” which also mined the same material, but to greater effect. “The Playroom” doesn’t share the same narrative drive or depth of emotion, instead coasting on a tedious wave of anticlimactic incidents, weaving metaphorical content with half-realized melodramatic confrontations. It’s a misfire from screenwriter Gretchen Dyer and director Julia Dyer, who can’t connect the puzzle pieces, resulting in a movie of attentive performances working through ill-defined storytelling.

In nameless suburbia in 1975, Maggie Cantwell (Olivia Harris) glumly goes about her business keeping siblings Christian (Jonathon McClendon), Sam (Ian Veteto), and Janie (Alexandra Doke) in line, while tending to her own teenage development when she engages in a sexual relationship with boyfriend Ryan (Cody Linley). Returning home after a doctor’s appointment to soak herself in booze, mother Donna (Molly Parker) halfheartedly tends to her domestic duties, while father Martin (John Hawkes) returns from his day job as a lawyer, trying to engage his kids on an intellectual level. When family friends Clark (Jonathan Brooks) and Nadia (Lydia Mackay) come over for an evening of cards and drinking, the children are sent into the attic, commencing an evening of spying and storytelling as they bond over their shared exile. For Maggie, greater revelations about her parents are emerging, pushing her to make critical decisions about her own mental health as the illusion of adulthood is shattered.

Perhaps “The Playroom” was a theatrical production at one point during its creative evolution, with the general atmosphere of the piece more suited to a live setting, with the children and their game play contrasting more intensely with the parental party, hitting thematic intention with greater force. As a film, the Dyers fail to secure a dramatic hold worth the time invested, although they promise great discomfort to come by establishing Donna’s insatiable thirst and Maggie’s garage-bound sexual awakening in the opening act, suggesting the two will collide head-on somewhere down the line. The moment never arrives. In fact, nothing exactly “happens” during the feature, which attempts to investigate festering emotional wounds in the Cantwell household, with a literal upstairs, downstairs approach of observation to solidify generational perspective.

While the picture has the posture of an enthralling, if familiar, odyssey into suburban woe, the Dyers don’t do enough with the potential of the concept. “The Playroom” elects to drone on through artificial antagonism between Donna and Martin, without digging into their disagreements to satisfaction. Instead, the script hints at a hedonistic direction early on that’s never returned to, electing to play out the climatic showdown as a vague as possible, confusing exactly what’s at stake here. As for the kids, they try to entertain themselves with music, suffer through sibling spats that erode childlike wonder, and slip out of the attic to watch their parents behave. Danger is added with a rooftop sojourn that amplifies their efforts to daydream their troubles away. There’s a running commentary of metaphorical storytelling that carries through the film, but it’s pulled pretty thin, failing to congeal into its intended emotional illumination.

Strong here are the young performers, who come across completely natural, believable as a family unit. The standout is Harris, who carries an appealing complexity in this, her feature-film debut, managing Maggie’s curiosity with her disgust, building to a characterization that’s credibly confused as the eldest Cantwell is rocked by proof of her parents’ insensitivity. Hawkes and Parker do what they can, but the writing is too distracted to allow much room for the actors to bite into the tension.

“The Playroom” eventually fades away, again reinforcing the lack of vigor to the proceedings. There’s a foundation here of repulsion and betrayal here that’s ripe for exploration, yet the Dyers strangely keep their distance, keeping “The Playroom” in a frustrating holding pattern.

Starring: John Hawkes, Molly Parker, Olivia Harris
Director: Julia Dyer

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