Review: Despite Good Performances, ‘The Playroom’ Remains Monotonous and Poorly Conceived

By  · Published on February 8th, 2013

The Playroom constantly states the obvious. For instance, nearly every time some finishes their drink, they proclaim, “I need a drink!” There is a also close-up of a newspaper article announcing the arrest of Patty Hearst, in case we didn’t catch that it takes place in the 1970s. More examples of this occur throughout the film, but said obviousness in direction quickly grows tiring – just give the audience some more credit.

Directed by Julia Dyer, and scripted by her sister Gretchen Dyer, The Playroom tells the story of one evening in the lives of four suburban children, cared for chiefly by their teenage sister Maggie (newcomer Olivia Harris), as they are sequestered in their upstairs playroom while their parents Martin and Donna (John Hawkes and Molly Parker) get increasingly drunk and debaucherous downstairs with another couple, Clark and Nadia (Jonathan Brooks and Lydia MacKay). To disguise their feelings of abandonment, they weave tales of how they plan to escape to a place where there are no adults, though new revelations and heartbreak creep into their fantasy world. Hawkes, Parker, and Harris all turn in impressive performances, though their skilled portrayals are not enough to make this film rise above mediocrity. The direction is straightforward, the story trajectory nearly flat lines, and an attempted narrative device poorly executed.

Things come to a head on this particular evening, as the booze never stops flowing (everyone “needs another drink!”). Donna comes home from work and apparently forgetting to go grocery shopping, the family of six have bacon and eggs for dinner. Donna continues to attack Maggie, and keeps saying her younger daughter Janie (Alexandra Doke) is the perfect child – after all, Janie is still young enough not to know that her mother is so neglectful. The youngest, Sam (Ian Veteto) is also too young to fully grasp the situation, but teenage son Christian (Jonathan McClendon) certainly does – like Maggie, he has become quite resentful and removed from his alcohol-soaked parents.

Later on, the kids are annexed upstairs, where they tell their stories to escape reality – judging from the ease in which they do pass along storytelling duties, this seems to be a nightly ritual. Meanwhile, Donna is really drunk and throws caution to the wind, not making any move to hide her affair with Clark, cavorting right under their respective spouses’ noses. Fights between the adults escalate, and a revelation occurs that shakes everything up – and Maggie makes an important life decision of her own by the evening’s end.

Artistic attempts are made here, but they don’t exactly work. The biggest instance of this is perhaps the film’s “framing device,” which is the voiceover of the children telling the story of their parent-less fantasy world intercut with events happening either in their realm or downstairs with the parents (shots of them telling the story are frequently included). This grows old fast, and the symbolism is so obvious. Yes, they want to escape because their parents are neglectful drunks, but we as an audience are hit over the head with this over and over again. The film does have a fairly authentic 1970s look, in terms of costumes and production design, but it seems that the actors overcompensate by over-exaggerating the stereotypical “loosey goosey” ways of the time period, swilling countless drinks and “swinging.”

I found it was really easy for my mind to wander when watching this, because nothing really happens over the course of the film – and that’s a big problem. There is one major blowout at the end, but that really doesn’t pack a punch – just repetition of the same themes and the same actions until the end. The film is like a slow-moving character study without character development, which definitely should not be. Other than Maggie, none of the children are really given personalities, per se. They merely exist in the attic, and Maggie serves as their mother substitute. Janey is her mother’s “perfect child,” and insists on telling the adults jokes, but that does not a personality make. Likewise, the parents aren’t exactly very fleshed out either. Martin is a quiet, passive drunk and Donna is a slutty, loud drunk, but that’s really all we learn about them.

The lack of character development is a shame, really, because it isn’t as if the actors in this film aren’t capable. Given his stellar past performances on both Deadwood and his film roles, Oscar nominee John Hawkes is perhaps one of the best working actors today. And it honestly is refreshing to see him play the average, middle class suburban dad instead of one of his signature “character” roles. But he isn’t given much material to work with here – he does what he can, and his character has exactly one emotional crescendo, but that’s about it. His former Deadwood co-star Molly Parker does get more to do, given the vitriolic drunk status of her character, but again, her character is very one-sided. She is a monster of a mother and wife – she throws her drink at Maggie’s face when Maggie calls out her drunkenness and of course screams “now I need another drink!” – and on the whole, little vulnerability is shown. Maggie is perhaps the most well-drawn character – she emulates her mother’s sexual nature and yet doesn’t want to be like her – and Olivia Harris, in her first film role here, does a great job at playing up any nuances.

The Playroom isn’t terrible – the actors all do a fine job, even if they aren’t overly developed, so the film remains watchable. But just being “watchable” isn’t enough. Nothing really happens over the course of the film, and the obvious is made super-obvious. I need a drink!

The Upside: John Hawkes, Molly Parker, and Olivia Harris all turn in fine performances.

The Downside: Artistic devices fall extremely short, the plot is monotonous, and the characters are poorly-drawn.

On the Side: So when are John Hawkes and Molly Parker making their ceremonious former-Deadwood co-star guest appearances with their bro Timothy Olyphant on Justified?