A small town can be a corrupting influence on a well-adjusted, big-city family not accustomed to living in a place where people have nothing better to do.
It can be especially corrupting and wearying if said family is a blended one. And so it is for the Burns-McNultys in "Little Boxes": Mack (black), Gina (white) and Clark (all of the above). When photographer Gina gets a tenure-track job at a university outside of Seattle, the family packs up its Brooklyn apartment and crosses the country in search of a better life that includes health insurance.
Rob Meyer's engaging dramedy is having its world premiere run at the 15th annual Tribeca Film Festival this week.
On the surface, "Little Boxes" can be summarily described as the tale of an interracial family and the travails that its members experience when they leave the big city for a small town. Peer beyond the surface, however, and it becomes obvious that Annie J. Howell's screenplay is about the various dimensions that define us.
The film is a fish-out-of-water story. It is about conformity. Class divisions. Racial stereotypes. Hyper racial sensitivity. Political correctness. Anti-intellectualism. Mediocrity. Rebellion. Parenting pre-adolescents in a 21st century, digital age world. And the universal truth that love can overcome a multitude of challenges. This stirfry is handled with a light hand and smirking humor throughout.
Underneath all of this - and seamlessly integrated - is the minutiae associated with settling into a new place, such as missing belongings and the discovery of problems with the house that were not visible before closing.
"Little Boxes" is told from the perspective of each of the central characters. Armani Jackson is simply adorable as 11-year-old Clark. He exhibits vulnerability and toughness in equal good measure. Being a city kid, Clark has by necessity been sheltered from many bad influences by his loving and progressive parents.
Thoughtful and slightly nerdy, he is fascinated by the permissive, under-parented, vapid world to which his new friends, mean-girls-in-the-making, Ambrosia (Oona Laurence) and Julie (Miranda McKeon), are introducing him. When Gina (Melanie Lynsey) gets a load of the new literature that her innocent son is consuming, she is aghast. Sorry, the 2Bit slutty don't cut it with Gina either. It is one of the numerous comic moments in the film filled with meaning.
Similarly, the adults are being corrupted by their new surroundings in fictional Rome, Washington, a none-too-subtle dig at the increasing shallowness of life in suburbia. Fans of the Showtime series, "Weeds," will see numerous parallels with "Little Boxes." Indeed, "Weeds" creator Jenji Kohan uses Malvina Reynolds' song, "Little Boxes," as that show's theme song. It decries suburban sprawl.
Like a good team member, "Gina" goes out to a "liquid" lunch with committee colleagues, complete with karaoke and copious amounts of tequila shots. This is a local past-time that a horrified and intoxicated Gina is expected to excel at, lest her state of drunkenness cause whispers.
Mack (Nelsan Ellis) is also drinking, albeit a better grade of tequila before he and new BFF, Tom (David Charles Ebert), take themselves off to a local watering hole. A fellow writer and president of the neighborhood block association, Tom is deep enough in his cups to loudly proclaim to the bar at-large that Mack is a great guy. "And close your eyes and you can't even tell he's black … you know … I mean in a good way. He's just very impressive." (Ouch!).
The film contains other such ouch moments. In various degrees of subtlety, they are exquisite in an embarrassment quotient that will cause some viewers to squirm in their seats.
One of the most delightful scenes in "Little Boxes" is the one in which Mack, Gina and Clark meet their new home together. Manhattanites and other big-city types forced to live in cramped quarters will be similarly awed by the notion of decent square footage and a half bath off the master bedroom. And one's very own car!
In telling a multi-ethnic, multi-layered story, it's a minefield out there. Howell and Meyer deftly navigate around it, taking viewers on a journey that shows various slices of life in their complexity and authenticity.
Visit http://www.tribecafilm.com to learn more about the 15th annual Tribeca Film Festival, including schedule, screenings and how to purchase tickets.