Little Boxes opens with slow-motion shots of a suburban town, the camera slowly zooming in on immaculately manicured lawns and fancy houses while a foreboding drone hums quietly on the soundtrack. This opening montage of Rob Meyer’s film may inspire a dread of a different sort, suggesting yet another tired attack on suburban conformity. The fact that Meyer draws the film’s title from Malvina Reynolds’s famous 1962 song of the same name—itself an excoriating attack on suburbia, couched in the most innocuous manner possible for even more stinging effect—doesn’t inspire much confidence either.
Meyer’s film turns out to be much thornier than its opening suggests—which is not to say that Meyer and screenwriter Annie J. Howell aren’t sometimes above the easy potshot. Most of the inhabitants of Rome, the small Washington suburb to which Gina (Melanie Lynskey), her husband Mack (Nelsan Ellis) and their son Clark (Armani Jackson) move from New York City, are depicted as varying degrees of kooky and/or sheltered. Tom (David Charles Ebert), the head of the town’s homeowner’s association, for instance, is depicted from the get-go as a little too enthusiastic about getting to know Mack, flashing a smarmy mile-wide smile. And then there are the two young girls Clark gets to know, Ambrosia (Oona Laurence) and Julie (Miranda McKeon), the former especially painted as a caricature of a spoiled rich kid who appears to only respond to Clark because he’s black. “We totally needed a black kid!” she whispers to Julie early on. “This town—it’s so white!”
That bit of racism is hardly an isolated incident in Little Boxes. Mack is black, Gina white, and Clark biracial. Plop this interracial clan in a lily-white neighborhood like this, and all sorts of tensions burst forth. Though Meyer’s film isn’t entirely about racism—Gina’s own anxieties about the academic track she’s about to embark on as a new arts professor at a local university is given a thread of its own—that still-relevant subject matter comes to dominate the film, especially when it climaxes in an act of vandalism faintly reminiscent of a similar, more seismic act towards the end of Do the Right Thing.
In some ways, though, the closest spiritual precedent to Little Boxes isn’t that Spike Lee masterpiece, but Paul Haggis’s Crash. I can already sense some readers flinching at the the invocation of that particular title, but I do so not entirely in the spirit of condemnation. On the negative side, Little Boxes does exude, to a certain degree, the same glorified afterschool-special feel of Haggis’s film, with characters at times feeling like they exist only as mouthpieces for varying attitudes toward race, rather than depicted as three-dimensional human beings who express those attitudes more subtly, the way people tend to insidiously do in real life.
As heavy-handed as Crash was in its message-mongering, however, there was a certain truth to the message it was trying to convey: basically, that there is a bit of racism in everyone, not just the oppressed. Little Boxes at least acknowledges that messiness in a manner that feels like the filmmakers honestly, if at times clumsily, wrestling with an agonizingly complex issue. Gina and Mack aren’t painted as victims of small-mindedness, but as big-city hipsters who are as prone to condescending to their new neighbors as the filmmakers themselves occasionally are. And then there is Clark, who finds himself seduced by Ambrosia, Julie, and their penchant for aping Two Bit, a fictional female hip-hop star known for her sexually provocative dance moves, and most likely the only exposure these rich white girls have to black culture. Clark’s subsequent confusion—in which he discovers that his father’s belief in treating people as individuals rather than labeling whole swathes of them as racist is much more complicated in the real world—eventually comes to the mirror the film’s own, but at least Meyer and Howell are willing to acknowledge that confusion, and leave us to work through it in the end rather than tying everything up in a neat little bow.
Director: Rob Meyer
Writer: Annie J. Howell
Starring: Melanie Lynskey, Nelsan Ellis, Armani Jackson, Oona Laurence, Miranda McKeon, Janeane Garofalo
Release Date: April 14, 2017
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and the Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.