Malvina Reynolds recorded “Little Boxes” all the way back in 1962, but her breezy folk tune is still an unparalleled musical satire of suburban life and the contemptuous conformity that it breeds (she said more in three minutes than Arcade Fire could muster over the length of an entire concept album). For all of the change that America has undergone in the last half-century, the lyrics to Reynolds’ song are almost as accurate today as they were 54 years ago. There’s just one bit that feels outmoded: The houses are still made of ticky tacky, but the people inside them don’t all look the same, anymore.
What happens when suburbia is irrevocably transformed by the growing racial polyphony of the American middle class? What happens when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force? Rob Meyer’s (“A Birder’s Guide to Everything”) new movie isn’t really sure, but it knows that things are liable to get real messy. As perceptive as it is precious and predictable, “Little Boxes” begins in the multiracial utopia of Brooklyn, where Gina (Melanie Lynskey, white) and her husband Mack (“True Blood” alum Nelsan Ellis, black) are packing up their spacious apartment and their lives along with it. She’s accepted a tenure-track job as a professor at a college in the quaint suburbs of Rome, Washington, and he’s a recovering novelist whose work allows him to uproot his life and tag along.
Unfortunately, the move is going to be a touch more traumatic for their 12-year-old son Clark (Armani Jackson). Not only does the soft-spoken boy have to say goodbye to his best friend, but he has to start sixth grade as the new kid in town. That’s a raw deal for anyone, let alone a gawky and confused bi-racial tween whose mushroom cloud of an afro impacts the kids of his vanilla new neighborhood like an atomic bomb.
Pulling from her own life, writer Annie J. Howell tells a low-key story that’s comfortably mired in the quotidian reality of raising a bi-racial kid in America. It’s a gentle story, pitched at a seriocomic angle that feels equally informed by “American Beauty” and the work of the Duplass brothers. Clark and his parents are hardly the first black people to move into the sticks.
This isn’t a movie about race riots or hate crimes; it isn’t a movie about Ferguson or Eric Garner, but rather one about how the ripples from those boiling points are felt in every community across the country. It’s a movie about “a post-racial America,” where prejudice has been swept from the streets and ironed into the fabric of daily living. If pre-Civil Rights racism was two black eyes and a bloody nose, the modern day suburban variety is more akin to pimples: Real, painful and often invisible to all but those who have to suffer them.
For most of the film, the outward facing stuff with the parents is too trite to register pierce the surface. Mack is regarded suspiciously by the people in town, some of whom overcompensate by way of apology (after learning that he’s a published author, the owner of the local bookstore awkwardly creates an entire window display in honor of his book). Elsewhere, he’s befriended by his WASPy next door neighbor, who wants to be besties after a tellingly awkward first encounter. There’s zero doubt that these developments are true to Howell’s experience, but they can feel falsely broad on screen — it’s tricky to make visible the daily prejudices that (white) people try to hide even from themselves.
Fortunately, the adult cast keeps things at a real world register. Mack is a man who’s trying to make the best of things as the butter slowly slides off the knife, and Ellis — with his subdued drawl and piercing stare — convincingly renders him as a man in media resignation. Where his father’s generation might have yelled, Mack can only sigh. Lynskey isn’t given quite so much to do, as her predicament doesn’t invite the same obvious drama as that of her co-star, but she’s radiantly real as a loving mother who’s able to pass for “normal” when she’s away from her family.
“Little Boxes” is at its best when focusing on the tension that builds between the couple, which is thick, complex and as toxic as the mold that’s growing behind their kitchen walls (a too-obvious metaphor that nevertheless feels real and helps sell the illusion of their lives pulling apart at the seams). Mack and Gina are poorly understood by the people in their new town, and that disconnect begins to clog the understanding they share between each other and their son. The rift between them widens gradually and with careful precision, and Meyer handles it with care even as Clark’s portion of the story gets away from him.
Clark’s new friends want him to act more black, while he just wants to have new friends in the first place. Through these characters, “Little Boxes” addresses delicate questions about how our national conversations shape and seep into younger generations — kids are indomitably curious and looking to make sense of the world, and they eagerly walk along the dividing lines that their parents trace for them (the film’s title isn’t just a reference to the song of the same name, but also the labels we use to compartmentalize people in an increasingly diverse world).
But as knowing and perceptive as Howell’s script can be, it fails to galvanize its most sensitive ideas into compelling drama, and Meyer doesn’t recognize where a spark might be necessary. Despite his moments of adolescent impetuousness, Clark is too much of a blank slate to anchor the loaded moments that are dropped on his shoulders, particularly when the two young girls he’s often interacting with are cartoon people who seem half his age. These pivotal scenes are too safe to feel as uncomfortable as they need to, and too sterile to earn the backwards absurdity they’re meant to provoke. “Little Boxes” reinforces the safe assumption that it’s hard to be a bi-racial kid in America, but it illustrates that point with such clean lines that it’s hard to see its points reflected in the messiness of real life.
“Little Boxes” premieres this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.
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Check out Lynskey in a deleted scene from “Togetherness” below: