In the tradition of The Ice Storm, The Playroom revisits 1970s suburbia, when the chilly civility between husband and Stepford wife bumps up against the sexual revolution. Over the course of one endless night, their teenage daughter transitions to womanhood with eyes wide open to what lies before her and what she’s leaving behind.
One day after school, the Cantwell children dutifully arrive home and file into their modernist house. Rebellious oldest sister Maggie (Olivia Harris) tacitly directs her siblings to help her clean up after last night’s party, picking up discarded stockings and ties and washing used tumblers before secreting away to the garage with her boyfriend (Cody Linley) for an afternoon tryst—her first time, it turns out. With a confident sexuality and subtle performance choices, newcomer Harris is a real find, conveying both world-weariness and vulnerability with the slightly awkward way she holds a cigarette.
Brother Christian (Jonathan McClendon) tucks away with a book, shutting out the world. Good girl Janie (Alexandra Doke) waits eagerly for Mom and Dad to get home—later in the evening, she pulls out a joke book, desperate to please. And Sam (Ian Veteto) quietly absorbs all that’s happening around him without fully understanding it.
Portrayed from the children’s point of view, this suburban nightmare holds off on revealing their parents, whose identities are initially obscured by a frame that cuts them off at the neck or a shot through frosted glass. Donna (Molly Parker) and Martin (John Hawkes) are chipper and polite, spinning the pathetic supper of bacon and eggs that she pulls from their empty fridge as some kind of midweek adventure. From Maggie’s barely concealed contempt, we can tell that there’s something terribly amiss in the Cantwell household, but what?
Gretchen Dyer’s script gives Parker and Hawkes, who co-starred on TV’s Deadwood, little more than behavior to work with, but both are such consummate performers that all the characters’ disappointment, fear, lust and rage pool in their very eyes.
The screwed-up situation becomes clearer with the arrival of the Knotts (Jonathan Brooks and Lydia Mackay), who apparently come over every evening to play cards and drink the night away. Meanwhile, the kids are sequestered in the attic where they entertain each other by telling stories by candlelight. Their fairy tales about children escaping from a castle, escaping by boat, escaping by spaceship—always escaping—play over the action of the film like a soundtrack.
Director Julia Dyer (sister to screenwriter Gretchen) lays the visual metaphors on thick, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. But overall they’ve created a mood in which the epic emotions at work fester and linger.
Director: Julia Dyer
Writer: Gretchen Dyer
Starring: John Hawkes, Molly Parker, Olivia Harris, Jonathan McClendon, Alexandra Doke, Ian Veteto, Jonathan Brooks, Lydia Mackay, Cody Linley
Release Date: Feb. 8, 2013