The Cantwell family having breakfast for dinner.
From the outside looking in, the Cantwells appear to be the ideal American family. They live in a nice, quite neighborhood with a beautiful home, four children and two loving parents. Yet once inside those walls, things are far from normal for this family. Set during one fall day in 1975, Julia Dyer’s The Playroom is an unflinching period piece look at American suburban life.
Janie, Maggie, Sam and Christian in the family living room.
Things begin somewhat normally as the Cantwell children, including the oldest, Maggie (Olivia Harris), her younger brother and second oldest Christian (Jonathan McClendon), younger sister Janie (Alexandra Doke) and youngest brother Sam (Ian Veteto) return home from school. As the children all settle back home, Maggie’s boyfriend Ryan comes over and the two have sex for the first time. However, the young couple are interrupted by Maggie’s mother Donna (Molly Parker of House of Cards), who has just returned from the doctor’s office. Things begin to seem off as Donna fixes herself a hefty tumbler of Johnny Walker. The family’s heavy drinking habits are shown by the multitude of empty glasses, half-drank bottles and full ashtrays littering the living room. After the patriarch Martin (Oscar nominee John Hawkes) returns home, things soon spiral downward. A visit from their friends the Knotts gets heavy as the scotch flows, and the children seek the refuge of the attic and each other’s stories of space travel, castles and pirates for comfort.
Maggie seating herself on the diving board.
Dyer uses the period architecture of the Cantwell home to great effect throughout the film. While this is a family drama, things unfold from the perspective of the four children. The tumultuous events that transpire in the living room between the two couples are expertly shot through stairway beams and hiding spots under the table. Different parts of the house represent the fractured nature of the family, and Dyer conveys this expertly. The actors portraying the children each give excellent performances, as the siblings struggle to stay together under the weight of their crumbling family. Maggie, in particular, bears the brunt of this family strain as she tries to take care of her younger siblings and mend the holes in her parent’s marriage.
The four Cantwell children in their playroom.
Where The Playroom’s child characters and cinematography excel, the adult characters and their struggles lack weight. We aren’t introduced to the Cantwell family as much thrown into the middle of a firefight. Things aren’t right between Donna and Martin but we don’t know why. A secret is revealed early on, and drives the rest of the scotch soaked, traumatic evening. Yet we don’t know why it happens or what caused the rift between this couple. Donna is simply introduced as an overly flirtatious, heavy drinker and Martin is simply putting on a face for the kids. The film’s final resolution comes entirely out of left field, yet you’re left scratching your head wondering why and struggling to care about these two adults. Hawkes and Parker both do well with what little they have, but you ultimately fail to care about their crumbling marriage.
Maggie observing her parents and their friends on the stairway landing.
Christian Cantwell seated in the living room.
Both Maggie and Christian rock high top chucks during a good portion of the film. Maggie sports a pair of red high tops and Christian a pair of white ones. There are a few early shots of the two wearing them, and they pop up periodically throughout the film. The best shot of Christian wearing his optical white high tops is when he is shown reading in the living room. The best scene with Maggie is during her romantic interlude with her boyfriend near the beginning of the film.
Maggie starts to kick off her red high top while making out with her boyfriend.
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