Film Review: Little Pink House

A levelheaded nurse fights to save her home and neighborhood from demolition in this disjointed but still-affecting drama.
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Venturing far from the sunken place, Catherine Keener stars in Little Pink House as real-life crusader Susette Kelo, a New London, Connecticut paramedic who leads her neighbors in a years-long battle against the state’s efforts to usurp their property by invoking eminent domain.

In the film’s first reel, in 1997, Susette walks out on her second bad marriage and creates a comfy new nest for herself in the titular abode. Albeit, she points out proudly that, contrary to popular opinion around town, she didn’t paint her “little pink cottage” pink, but Odessa rose. The paint job is just the icing on the cake, as the unassuming EMT refurbishes her quaint, riverside cottage from top to bottom by herself.

Susette’s substantial investment of time, sweat, funds and elbow grease is conveyed in the broad, recognizable strokes of a music montage, yet Keener and writer-director Courtney Balaker generate a deeply genuine sense of the pleasure and pride this hard-working woman takes in owning and fixing up her home. That little pink house provides all the security Susette ever craved in an uncertain world.

The film, in turn, provides a fine dramatic showcase for two-time Academy Award nominee Keener. It’s unfortunate that her aching, astute performance occasionally gets buried under the fairly obvious score by composers Ryan Rapsys and Scott McRae. The story, based on a book by Jeff Benedict, generally allows for a greater complexity of feeling than what’s delivered by the plunking piano and strings.

Co-star Jeanne Tripplehorn expresses several shades of emotional complexity portraying Susette’s main antagonist, Charlotte Wells. The skirt-suit-clad foil to blousy, blue jeans-wearing Susette, Charlotte’s the ambitious college president appointed by the governor to head a state-funded nonprofit dubbed the New London Development Corporation (NLDC). The NLDC’s, and Charlotte’s, main mission will be to lure some Fortune 500 company to locate to New London—specifically, to build on a parcel of so-called blighted land near a sewage plant.

But that blighted land contains the serenely beautiful patch of waterfront property that Susette calls home. In fact, her entire neighborhood of historic Fort Trumbull is marked for demolition by the NLDC, at the behest of the jobs-creating company that’s most interested in taking that land, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals.

Balaker’s script doesn’t bother with shades of gray sketching the pharma giant, represented here by CEO Munson (Michael Kopsa), shown greedily anticipating the impending windfall he expects the company to reap with their new little blue pill, Viagra. The Governor (Aaron Douglas), his chief aide (Rob LaBelle) and the New London city attorney (Jerry Wasserman) likewise are depicted as unmitigated heels, while Susette and her band of resisters all are humble, salt-of-the-earth locals: families, retirees, an elderly couple who’ve spent their entire marriage in their Fort Trumbull home.

The movie stalls and jerks through its first half establishing where every character falls along the battle lines. But once off and running, Little Pink House gathers suspense for those unaware of the outcome of Susette’s crusade. It’s a righteous crusade, even if the light over Fort Trumbull looks wrong. Despite the best efforts of cinematographer Alexandre Lehmann, the daylight and vistas don’t strongly evoke the coastal New England town, but rather belie the production’s shooting locations around Vancouver. Still, the lensing looks crisp enough to capture Susette’s Odessa rose clapboard, and to convey the horror when one owner’s home is bulldozed into oblivion.

Levelheaded Susette finds the fire within to stand up to the demolition crews, but ultimately the movie abandons her individual story to focus on the case’s progress to the U.S. Supreme Court. The pacing and architecture of the courtroom scenes hardly rise to the quality of the average Grisham adaptation, although Balaker gets across the vital points. How Susette evolves the will and fortitude over a decade to accomplish any personal milestones outside this court case is left to the imagination, and to occasional signpost scenes.

She develops a close romantic bond with a smitten antiques dealer, Tim (Callum Keith Rennie), though he’s not so much fleshed out as a love interest as he just declares himself a love interest, to Susette’s surprise and perhaps that of the audience. There’s little Rennie can do to provide much context for the guy other than supportive sidekick.

Keener and Tripplehorn, wielding sharper steel, carve out characterizations that emphasize each woman’s humanity in the midst of a grueling philosophical conflict over the government’s Fifth Amendment right to expropriate private land for the public good. The legal arguments are rendered, again, in the broadest strokes, but the overall picture is there, of a chapter of U.S. history that might have seemed like just a fight over a little pink house, but someday could turn out to be one of the most important court decisions ever made defining who owns what in this country.

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