After blazing the screen in Dear White People and Chi-Raq, Teyonah Parris adds another compelling performance to her growing resume through Where Children Play. In this new drama from Leila Djansi, Parris plays the lead role of a woman who is forced to face a tragic past. And as she digs through her character’s scars, this rising actress proves her ability to elevate even the most conventional narratives.
Teyonah Parris’ protagonist is Belle, a California native who has relocated to Georgia to escape a tortured past. Working a low-paying job at a hotel, she struggles to make ends meet in her new home. But her financial struggles are no match for her painful childhood, which rears its ugly head one day following some tragic news. One morning, her aunt Helen (Macy Gray) shows up unannounced to reveal that her mother has suddenly passed away. Belle must then travel back home to attend the funeral, where she also finds out that her father – the main source of her strife – has been bedridden after severe kidney failure. To make matters worse, she’s forced to take care of him as his closest living relative. And as Belle comes to terms with her new predicament, she comes to realize that despite running away, she never truly moved on.
With the use of flashbacks, Belle’s secrets gradually come to the surface as a history of abuse and neglect is revealed. But even as several plot elements cry out for a sensationalist approach, Djansi smartly reins it in for a more compelling character study of the trauma’s effect on Belle. And Parris is certainly up to the task, conveying all the fear, pain, sorrow and disappointment that has afflicted her life.
Even as Belle is portrayed as a sympathetic character, Parris never shies away from the character’s flaws either. Her character harbors hatred – albeit justified – and is prone to manipulative behavior. But as the story allows her to confront these issues, Djansi and Parris craft a touching portrait of forgiveness and healing.
There’s indeed some nuance to this central performance, but at its heart, the script’s DNA is still pulpy melodrama. In one painfully obvious scene, a violent alcoholic rapes a woman as the camera zooms in to focus on an overturned liquor bottle. And the film goes on to feature some questionable mystic elements to emphasize that Belle is literally haunted by her memories. But even as the narrative pushes towards its overly familiar conclusion, Parris never falters, grounding the film in truth and sincerity. Where Children Play may be too conventional for my liking, but it at least provides a strong showcase for a fresh new star.