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The Playroom: Where Things Almost Happen

The Playroom is one of those films that you hope has that dramatic edge to carry toward a wider release, but disappointingly believes too much in itself and fizzles quickly into the eye glazing over dream state that sometimes accompanies a non-ballyhooed indie February release.

The uncomplicated story hovers around the four Cantwell children coping with yet another night entertaining themselves in the playroom while their parents Martin (John Hawkes) and Donna (Molly Parker) have an “adult party” downstairs with their neighbors. Over the course of an hour and a half nothing happens until the end when something almost happens but then it doesn’t.  I suppose the plot was subtle, quiet, elusive, something, something, something artsy words. I was rolling my eyes two minutes in and I couldn’t stop until I was thanking the final credits. 

I really checked out twenty minutes in when the inciting incident was supposed to happen, and then didn’t. Rather, a contrived family dinner scene occurred that played out like the first night of rehearsal of a senior thesis play, with each actor waiting to deliver their line and laugh-tracking at each poorly timed grossly un-funny joke meant to break up the non-existent tension. Other than some blatant foreshadowing occurring, where each child speaks about “where they would go on an adventure” (Setting up the stories that each child tells the others to entertain themselves while their parents frolic downstairs) nothing of consequence happened in the “pivotal” scene that was supposed to set the mood for act two. A strong story happened before the events shown in this film, and a strong story probably happened sometime after. The filmmakers decided to show us a story that almost happened, as if we were watching a bunch actors milling around a soundstage waiting for another scene to be set up. Just as the scene is well lit and sound is rolling, the film cuts away and leaves us guessing, “What could have happened?”

A majority of the story flipped back and forth from the oldest child Maggie’s (Olivia Harris) perspective from existing upstairs as a parent figure for her siblings, and downstairs a therapist for her parents. Each time she went upstairs a chunk of intended dialogue occurred, stories between the siblings, and each time she went downstairs the story did not progress to anything substantial. Instead, we were once again treated to a scene in which Donna blatantly flirts with their neighbor Clark (Jonathan Brooks) and Martin slowly gets less and less oblivious to it. It’s blasphemy to criticize the plot point choices of a writer more successful than myself, but perhaps another trained screenwriter could have taken the events of the entire film and condensed them into an act one, leaving the rest of the film to show the aftermath in dramatic rising and falling action.

Individually the performances of the actors in the film were above respectable, but their chemistry with each other was sub-par at its best. The semi-palpable dissention between Hawkes and Parker as they dealt with the lingering aura of Dolly’s obvious yet somehow “surprising” affair carried the film. The relationships between the cookie-cutter stock characters of the Cantwell children were paint-by-numbers, although the acting effort was definitely there. Perhaps the direction could have been better, but frankly there wasn’t much dramatic action for the young actors to work with.

I have a strong suspicion the film may have been drawn from some autobiographical source, as The Playroom fiddled with the machinery of a large family dynamic, and was coincidentally produced by one. Of the Dyer siblings, Julia directed, Stephen produced, and Gretchen wrote. Sadly screenwriter Gretchen Dyer passed away in 2009 before she could really take flight, because she probably could have had a promising career as a novelist. Her screenplay dealt a lot with inner tension and the caustic family dynamic of a disconnected family growing up in the 1970’s. If I were reading a novel or watching a stage play, I might have enjoyed the poignant yet understated family drama. However, as a film it had very little impact due to its lack of payoff and slow nature. The inner writer slash editor slash director in me kept shouting “Faster!” “Cut that!” “Cut that!” “Faster!” “Step on her line!” “Somebody do something… anything!”   

The Playroom is in very few theaters this weekend for a reason. Several indie film aficionados will strongly disagree with me, and perhaps I watched the film under the wrong circumstances. Maybe the lighting was bad. Or I was hungry. I’m searching for more excuses, but as the credits rolled I couldn’t help thinking how much I needed to pack more dramatic action into my own screenplays if I ever hope to produce a film as frustrating as this one.