'Little Pink House': Film Review | Santa Barbara 2017

Hits a nerve.

Oscar nominee Catherine Keener stars in the true story of a woman who fought all the way to the Supreme Court for the right to keep her house.

Following in the tradition of issue-oriented films like Erin Brockovich and A Civil Action, the world premiere of Little Pink House at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival has unmistakable timeliness. This story of little people against Big Pharma certainly resonates today. The presence of two-time Oscar nominee Catherine Keener and an excellent supporting cast should help to give the movie more visibility. It has some structural problems, but with canny marketing, it could find a distributor and even a sympathetic audience.

The film is based on the true story of a Connecticut woman, Susette Kelo (Keener), who fought an eviction notice all the way to the Supreme Court. Kelo lived in a working-class neighborhood near New London. Local bigwigs wanted to sell land along the waterfront to Pfizer for a huge new plant. The company had just begun marketing Viagra and was riding high, but the residents decided to resist. Kelo, a paramedic who had put tremendous effort into remodeling her little pink house on the water, had no interest in selling. Under the Constitution, the government has the right to seize private property for public use, but in this case, the fact that the beneficiary of the land grab was a private corporation made the issues a lot murkier.

When the Supreme Court finally reached its 5-4 decision in 2005, it was the more liberal justices who sided with the corporation, while the conservatives dissented. However, as director Coutney Moorehead Balaker stated in the Q&A after the pic's premiere, Donald Trump has extolled the ruling. Most states have reached the opposite conclusion, so the issues remain unsettled.

A polemic about eminent domain would have little audience appeal, so it was wise of the filmmakers to focus on the people rather than abstract issues. Nevertheless, the film probably spends a little too much time sketching the background of Kelo and her neighbors. The film doesn’t quite leap from the starting gate; it’s too leisurely and a bit too convoluted at the beginning.

Keener definitely helps to build audience sympathy for the unprepossessing but determined Kelo, and there are excellent performances by Callum Keith Rennie and Colin Cunningham as two of the men in her life. The movie broadens its scope by giving a lot of attention to her antagonists, including the governor of Connecticut (who is never named) and a real estate lobbyist played with force and complexity by Jeanne Tripplehorn. Later in the film, Giacomo Baessato contributes a heartfelt performance as the idealistic lawyer who takes up Kelo’s cause.

Although the pic doesn’t have the rousing ending that some earlier social protest dramas have had, it effectively puts the audience on the side of the outsiders. Balaker’s direction is solid, and after a sluggish opening, Soojin Chung’s editing provides a good deal of drive. One of the best earlier films about the subject was Elia Kazan’s 1960 drama Wild River, which was set in the 1930s but gave a good deal of humanity to its antagonists in an epic battle over eminent domain. The subject has been treated only rarely since then, but Little Pink House brings urgency to a fascinating, underexplored theme. In a darkly ironic footnote, we learn that the Pfizer plant was never built, but this offered little consolation to the displaced homeowners.

Production company: Brightlight Pictures, Korchula Productions
Cast: Catherine Keener, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Callum Keith Rennie, Colin Cunningham, Aaron Douglas, Giacomo Baessato
Director-screenwriter: Courtney Moorehead Balaker
Based on the book by: Jeff Benedict
Producers: Ted Balaker, Joel Soisson, Courtney Moorehead Balaker, Arielle Boisvert
Executive producers: Martha Apgar, Jeff Benedict, Frayda Levin, Chris Rufer, Rebekah Mercer, Helen Welsh, Kerry Welsh, Shaw Williamson
Director of photography: Alexandre Lehmann
Production designer: Rick Whitfield
Editor: Soojin Chung
Music: Scott McRae, Ryan Rapsys
Venue: Santa Barbara International Film Festival

99 minutes