Naturally compared to Ang Lee’s harrowing film The Ice Storm (1997), director Julie Dyer teamed up with sister and writer Gretchen Dyer attempt to bring an honest and emotional take on 1970’s suburbia in the morose and grim, The Playroom. Starring Academy Award Nominee John Hawkes, Molly Parker, and Olivia Harris, the story takes place in the attic where the four children of Martin (Hawkes) and Donna Cantwell (Parker) tell fantastical tales while their parents fall deeper in a drunken state downstairs with friends Clark and Nadia.
If there’s a film that can teach you about the psyche of survival and the ability to grow up when your adolescent mind tells you otherwise, Dyer’s film is a prime example. While the sequences of events are not the most believable or even the most logical, Dyer’s screenplay does its best to construct a family that is often times recognizable. As the parents continue to ignore their children while self-absorbed in their own marital and painful woes, you’re constantly challenged with the question, who do you care for, the kids, the adults, or neither?
In a narrative structure that at times is reminiscent of The Neverending Story (1984), sometimes there’s too much moral and metaphorical presentations to keep you engaged during its 82 minute runtime. As it begins with wit, humor, and real life teenage situations, the film makes an abrupt shift into heavy material that will make you cringe.
John Hawkes showcases a calm and poised performance that’s darkly reminiscent of his turn as Patrick in Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011). As Hawkes boils at the brim, never toppling over, his commitment to Martin and his emotional detachment from a life he no longer knows is one of the actor’s strongest performances ever. He continues to show range and the ability to elevate any material he’s given.
As the alcoholic and disconnected mother Donna, Molly Parker, devotes herself to the craft beautifully, even when her character clearly is not. Similarly effective like Julianne Moore’s Oscar-nominated turn in Stephen Daldry’s The Hours (2002), Parker wears the despair on her soul and delivers her finest turn yet. Commanding the screen and demanding the viewer’s attention, Donna is both the obstacle and driving force that makes for a successful but uneven look at matrimony.
In the end, it’s Olivia Harris that gets the most attention and care from the viewer. In the role of Maggie, the eldest daughter, Harris bares her soul on screen. Though a problematic character response to certain situations doesn’t allow Harris to stretch out in the manner I believe she’s fully capable of, Harris makes due with her material. It’s a wonderful breakout performance that could and should land her more dynamic and capable roles in Hollywood. Not to mention, a beautiful singing voice that is showcased in the credits as she delivers sweet rendition of Carole King’s “Up on the Roof.”
Leaving too many questions unanswered, and an ending that’s less than satisfying, The Playroom intrigues and latches on to the viewer’s conscience enough to stick through the tale. With children fighting to survive and fortunate enough to have the bond of siblings to get them through, the film can make you appreciate some of the bad times you remember growing up, even the ones you try really hard not to.
Watch the Official Trailer Below: