You won’t need a degree in film studies to figure out the significance of the story that the four Cantwell children make up in “The Playroom,” an emotionally rich drama set in suburbia in 1975. Gathered around a candle to simulate a campfire setting, they improvise a tale about four orphaned kids who escape from their lonely castle and set out for adventure. Downstairs, the Cantwell children’s reckless parents are entertaining — which is to say, drinking, smoking, and loudly carousing with — another couple.
We understand from the get-go that this is a regular occurrence. The kids — almost-adult Maggie (Olivia Harris), bookish younger teen Christian (Jonathan McClendon), daddy’s girl Janie (Alexandra Doke), and sensitive little Sam (Ian Veteto) — are accustomed to spending evenings in the spacious attic playroom. One of the film’s deftest touches is an early scene in which the kids come home from school and chat casually as they clean up the empty glasses and full ashtrays from the previous night’s revelry, as if this is an ordinary afternoon chore. The children don’t comment on it. They don’t have to: the camera, surrogate for the viewer, does all the judging, panning scornfully across the living-room debris.
But being accustomed to it isn’t the same as accepting it, as evidenced by the fairy tale the kids cheerfully concoct tonight when it all happens again. Maggie, in particular, is getting old enough to seek freedom from parents who don’t do a lot of parenting after 6 p.m. anyway, and she’s eager to prove she can be at least as “adult” as they are, maybe by running off with her motorcycle-riding boyfriend (Cody Linley). Giving her a little extra nudge is the sensational newspaper story about yesterday’s arrest of Patty Hearst. (If you’re curious, that means the film takes place on Sept. 19, 1975.) Maggie can relate to Hearst’s desire for freedom. Her parents say Hearst is a terrorist, period, end of story.
I haven’t told you about the Cantwell parents yet. That’s only because the movie’s focus is on the children, who are having their own dramas in the foreground while their folks’ grown-up battles take place in the background. But the parents, Martin and Donna — played by “Deadwood” alumni John Hawkes and Molly Parker — are a compelling train wreck in their own right, boozing, laughing, arguing, and flirting with Mr. and Mrs. Knotts (Jonathan Brooks and Lydia Mackay). The dynamics between the Cantwells and the Knottses could be the material for an entirely separate movie, one where the kids are sent upstairs and not heard from again. What makes “The Playroom” special is that it never even considers doing that. It’s the children’s story all the way.
The kids’ performances are effective and strong, with little touches that bring them to life as recognizable types of smart young people: the way Christian has a favorite spot for reading, the way Sam catches hold of a new word he hears (“brainwashed”) and says it whenever he can, Janie’s fondness for telling jokes she learned from a joke book. When Mom and Dad get home and the family sits down to dinner — the last moment of traditional family behavior before the Knottses arrive — Martin conducts a spelling bee at which all of his children excel. You could almost believe that this household of bright adults and kids functions normally.
The film was directed by Julia Dyer, written by her sister Gretchen Dyer (who passed away in 2009), and produced by their brother Stephen Dyer. One is tempted to speculate about the state of things in the Dyer home in the 1970s, except that the film doesn’t really have the feel of a direct autobiography. It’s more like a sepia-toned snapshot from an experience that everyone has — childhood — mingled with memories of the freewheeling 1970s and of films like “The Ice Storm” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (and, coincidentally, the short-lived TV series “Swingtown,” which also starred Molly Parker). It doesn’t reach quite the same devastating heights as those stories, but it covers its own ground with tender, sympathetic honesty that is refreshing and invigorating to watch.
[Also available through Video On Demand.]
B+ (1 hr., 23 min.; )