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Director Rob Meyer took a snapshot of awkward-age adolescents scrambling toward maturity in his modest but smartly observed debut feature, A Birder’s Guide to Everything. He winds back the years in Little Boxes to focus on the bumpy preteen transitional period of a biracial kid, a role imbued with an appealing balance of introspective vulnerability and cool self-possession by Armani Jackson. Too bad he’s stuck in a tonally wishy-washy movie with conflicts that feel too constructed to ring true and humor that ranges from ineffectually low-key to forced. Meyer aims to emulate the jagged freeform jazz that permeates his soundtrack, but this wan indie is strictly middle-of-the-road background music.
Perhaps the key weakness of Annie J. Howell’s screenplay is that Jackson’s 11-year-old character, Clark, never makes a decisive grab to be the story’s center. Instead, he constantly gets shuffled aside for dreary stretches in which the adults in his life wrestle with their own uninteresting readjustment process while spouting bland platitudes lifted from the PC-parenting handbook.
Those parents are Mack (Nelsan Ellis), a jazz-loving African-American writer, dabbling in gastronomic journalism while failing to make headway on his second novel; and his wife Gina (Melanie Lynskey), a photographer whose specialization in “gender performativity” acknowledges a debt to Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin. When she gets a tenure-track job on the arts faculty of a Washington State college, the family packs up and moves cross-country from New York.
Howell’s script flips the usual fish-out-of-water trajectory by contrasting the seemingly perfect inner-city life of the family — Clark, in particular — with the disconcerting realities they find hidden behind the leafy tranquility of suburbia.
One minute, Clark is playing chess with his impeccably polite childhood buddy in Brooklyn, the next he’s being encouraged by two precocious white preteen fembots, Ambrosia (Oona Laurence) and Julie (Miranda McKeon), to conform to the young black stereotype. “Omigod, we like totally needed a black kid,” gushes Ambrosia. “This town is so white.” Under the girls’ influence, Clark is indoctrinated into the pleasures of hip-hop dancing, swaggering attitude and sexual objectification.
There are other hints early on that the film will explore the uneasy entry of a mixed-raced family into a non-urban environment. “We just want to see what else is out there,” says Mack of their decision to leave New York. “Racism,” replies a friend. But aside from cultural assumptions that quickly give way to the overcompensating and somewhat invasive friendliness of a lily-white liberal enclave, the race theme is a non-starter.
Most of the family’s strife is internal, and to be honest, fairly tiresome. Gina gets swiftly adopted and whisked off to a liquid lunch by the feminist academic squad (Janeane Garofalo, Veanne Cox and Nadia Dajani, all of them abrasively unfunny cartoons), while Mack gets increasingly frustrated by moving-van delays, lack of Wi-Fi and the discovery that their roomy picture-book house is riddled with mold. He’s also plagued by the unwanted attentions of the local bookstore clerk (Will Janowitz), whose offer to host a reading at the shop only compounds Mack’s anxieties about his lack of productivity.
Ellis (True Blood) has some nice moments, underplaying the eye-rolling reactions of Mack to his new surroundings and establishing a warm connection with Jackson in their scenes together. But Lynskey seems miscast. Considering how likeable and real she is as another kind of frazzled wife and mother on Togetherness, her performance here is drab, more like someone’s tired idea of an alternative, artsy intellectual (Gina’s course is titled “The Female Gaze”) than an actual person. That applies to most of the cast, who seem to be playing “types” more than characters.
The family crisis comes to a head abruptly, after Clark has begun acting out in ways his parents have never experienced from him, and his interaction with bratty Ambrosia brings trouble from her mother (Christine Taylor in a thankless part), a notch or two lower down the class ladder. But the writing and direction fail to provide a convincing buildup, so the conflict lacks teeth and the inevitable reconciliation carries no emotional weight.
While the movie looks clean and crisp, with New York State locations standing in serviceably enough for the Pacific Northwest, it’s flavorless. Although Howell has said that Little Boxes was loosely inspired by her own experience, this is a flat depiction of contrived situations that too seldom feel lived-in.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight)
Cast: Melanie Lynskey, Nelsan Ellis, Armani Jackson, Oona Laurence, Janeane Garofalo, Christine Taylor, Miranda McKeon, Maliq Johnson, Nadia Dajani, Veanne Cox, David Charles Ebert, Will Janowitz, Julie Hays, Dierdre Friel
Production companies: Mighty Engine, Related Pictures, Gilbert Films
Director: Rob Meyer
Screenwriters: Annie J. Howell
Producers: Jared Ian Goldman, Jordan Horowitz, Ken H. Keller, Caron Rudner
Executive producers: Wyatt Gatling, Marc H. Simon, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Gary Gilbert, Rose Troche
Director of photography: Tom Richmond
Production designer: Neil Patel
Costume designer: Charlese Antoinette Jones
Music: Kris Bowers
Editor: Marc Vives
Casting: Avy Kaufman
Not rated, 90 minutes
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