Film Review: Little Boxes

Rob Meyer’s satisfying coming-of-age dramedy examines race relations through the story of an interracial family relocated to Washington State from multicultural Brooklyn.
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“You’re moving to Rome! That’s an adventure,” says a friend of Gina (Melanie Lynskey, typically delightful), standing across a mountain of packed and sealed boxes, early in Rob Meyer’s satisfying yet slight dramedy Little Boxes. She isn’t referring to the cosmopolitan city in Italy, however. Gina, along with her husband Mack (Nelsan Ellis) and their sixth-grader son Clark (Armani Jackson), is moving to Rome, Washington instead. And you already know in your gut (and through the film’s eerie opening that gives us a glimpse of their future home), the transition to a new life won’t quite develop all that swimmingly for them. After all, they are an interracial family, relocating from their liberal and multicultural Brooklyn haven to a predominantly (actually, overwhelmingly) white quaint town and its deep suburbs. Little Boxes tells the story of these fishes that are about to be taken out of their safe waters and the consequent challenges that await.

On paper, their move makes perfect sense. Gina is a photographer and a teacher who lands a hard-to-come-by job in academia. Mack is a published author struggling with his second book—a change of scenery could help him a great deal, too. So the family takes a leap of faith and accepts the security of a permanent position with health insurance and the other benefits that come with it, in lieu of their lovely Brooklyn apartment and lifestyle. But when in Rome, the problems erupt from the very first day: no gas, a less-than-collaborative moving company that doesn’t seem to be in any kind of rush to deliver their furniture, bad air mattresses, well-meaning but awkward neighbors, and deeply settled mold throughout the house (a too-on-the-nose metaphor) name it.

The real focus of the film is young Clark, whose adjustment process involves two new neighborhood friends, Ambrosia (Oona Laurence) and Julie (Miranda McKeon), who frequently invite him over to hang out by the pool. The girls agree they “needed a black friend in their circle” and demand that Clark, an adorable, perceptive and quiet geek, act more black. The clueless duo ask him stereotypical questions like whether he likes rap music and treat him with a mixture of amusement and intrigue, as if he’s an exciting new project. Desperate for friends and a little taken by the girls, especially by Ambrosia (who is a lot more forward than Julie), Clark starts displaying severe changes in his behavior and becoming an unknown to his parents, who had thus far been very close to him. His journey is not unlike that of the title hero in the recent coming-of-age indie Morris from America, who similarly fights stereotyping and everyday racism in his small and lily-white German town.

The attitude of the two young girls proves to be not that far off from their parents and other adults around town. Mack finds he is often faced with initially skeptical, and then overtly nice behavior from neighbors and townspeople he meets for the first time. It’s uncomfortable to watch these people act out of a sense of white guilt to reverse the damage their preliminary clumsy behavior might have caused. Meanwhile, Gina deals with her share of problems. Taken under the wings of a group of women in her faculty, she indulges in boozy outings (Lynskey makes an affable drunk, as you might recall from The Intervention) away from Mack, who also takes up drinking while obsessively dealing with the mold in their house.

Written by Annie J. Howell and partly inspired by her own marriage, Little Boxes is a solidly conceived film dealing with race and white privilege. Its only shortcoming perhaps is not pushing the envelope a bit further by engaging with the themes it scratches on a deeper level. Yet you can’t fault the film for it. After all, Little Boxes, which has been making the festival rounds for a year now, is a product of a different time and political climate. Still, you do leave wondering what the film would have been like were it made with today’s timely, post-Get Out lens and political despair.

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