In a darkened attic, four suburban children sit around a lit candle and conjure up a fairy tale. They each make contributions, but the main storyteller is the eldest child, a teenager named Maggie (Olivia Harris), who gets things rolling by saying, “Once upon a time…” We immediately take notice of the way their story begins, namely with the knowledge that the main characters, four siblings, lost their parents in a plane crash and buried what was left of them next to the graves of their dead pets. This is not a dramatic retelling of what happened to Maggie and her siblings’ real parents; they’re both very much alive. But the more they add on to their story, the more obvious it becomes that Maggie has negative feelings about her parents, and that she began the fairy tale as a way to process her emotions. The fact that the fictional children escape from a locked castle and sail to an island devoid of parents is sadly telling.
Scenes of the story being told are intercut all throughout The Playroom, an intriguing yet maddeningly perplexing examination of dysfunctional family life in the 1970s, a time marked by the sexual revolution and the women’s movement. With its affected screenplay and enigmatic characters, it’s a film we’re invited to ponder but not necessarily understand. In all fairness, I’m saying this as someone who wasn’t yet born in the ‘70s, and therefore had no firsthand experience of how either the revolution or the movement impacted suburban life. That being said, there’s an obvious theatricality to the tone as well as to the performances, one that exists completely outside of era and location; on that basis alone, I found the film to be somewhat engaging but mostly impenetrable.
Although Maggie is fairly straightforward and characteristically in line with the attitudes and behaviors of the decade, her siblings are developed to the point of oddness. The second oldest, Christian (Jonathan McClendon), will read behind the living room recliner and make the occasional sarcastic remark. The younger sister, Janie (Alexandra Doke), gets along well with her siblings but is also the goody-two-shoes of the family and is clearly favored by her mother. The youngest, Sam (Ian Veteto), is a quiet little boy who has trouble using a toilet and is apparently only able to pee out of an open window. When they get home from school, we see a clear division of labor, Maggie being the parental figure. They all pitch in to straighten up the living room, which is littered with half-empty cocktail glasses and ashtrays full of cigarette butts. While searching for her prized joke book, Janie discovers both a stocking and a man’s tie in the cushions of the couch.
The mother, Donna (Molly Parker), is the first to arrive home. She will immediately pour herself a drink, the first of many over the course of the film. The more we see and hear of her, the more obvious it becomes that what she wants out of life is inconsistent with domesticity, especially the obligations of parenthood. Her early scenes reveal a quiet desperation; numb on alcohol and always with a cigarette between her fingers, she virtually ignores her sons, dotes over Janie superficially, and butts heads with Maggie, who may be in a perpetual state of rebellion but still has more in common with her mother than she would care to admit. Donna is almost always seen repressing her hostility towards her husband, Martin (John Hawkes), a mild-mannered provider who comes home from work in a suit and tie. During dinner, which consists of breakfast foods, he will communicate with his children – and, most interestingly, with his wife – by holding his own mini spelling bee.
It isn’t long before the doorbell rings. Here enter Clark and Nadia (Jonathan Brooks and Lydia Mackay), a typical-looking married couple. This would explain the leftover glasses of booze and the ashtrays full of cigarette butts; it would seem Clark and Nadia meet with Martin and Donna on a fairly regular basis. This is the point at which, for the most part, the children and adults separate and occupy different areas of the house. The former go into the attic, where several seemingly menial conversations eventually transition into the aforementioned fairy tale. The latter occupy the living room and spend the night playing cards, telling dirty jokes, and listening to records. It’s their adult playtime, which we sense masks deeper, darker realities. Indeed, both Maggie and the audience can see that Clark and Donna are much friendlier with each other than they should be. What we ultimately learn about all four adults makes Maggie’s discontent easy to understand. She ends her story with, “And they lived happily ever after,” although the visuals suggest otherwise.
The interesting thing about The Playroom is that its production was a family affair. Julia Dyer served as both director and producer. Her sister, the late Gretchen Dyer, wrote the screenplay, while her brother, Stephen Dyer, co-produced. I have no idea what their upbringing was like, but on the basis of how the characters are developed, my assumption would be that they had an innate understanding of the material. Even if this is the case, personal understanding doesn’t necessarily translate into something an audience can understand. Consider Gretchen’s dialogue; in much the same way as a particularly character-driven stage play, every line appears so simple on the surface yet drips with hidden meaning. In other words, we’re challenged to decipher what the characters are really saying. This is admirable, up to a point. Ultimately, I believe we’re given too much to think about and not enough to take at face value.
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