LOS ANGELES, Calif. – A rare example of a grown-up story compellingly told from the perspective of children, “The Playroom” is a modest gem. This ’70s-set drama depicting one tumultuous night in a suburban family’s lives benefits from the admirably subtle approach by director Julia Dyer, working from a sensitive screenplay penned by her late sister Gretchen, with their brother Stephen serving as one of the producers. Unlike the dysfunctional one depicted onscreen, this family unit works together perfectly.
The title refers to where the Cantwell children — teenage Maggie (Olivia Harris) and younger siblings Christian (Jonathon McClendon), Janie (Alexandra Doke) and Sam (Ian Veteto) — gather to tell each other stories by candlelight.
When their parents return home one night, it soon becomes apparent that the family dynamics are frayed, with the mother Donna (Molly Parker) clearly a heavy drinker and father Martin (John Hawkes) affectionate but distracted. Still, everything seems normal enough, with Martin even conducting an impromptu spelling bee during dinner.
It isn’t until the arrival of another couple (Jonathan Brooks, Lydia Mackay) for a night of cards and drinks that things begin to unravel, with Maggie catching her mother passionately kissing the family friend and the evening devolving into loud drunken arguments and a physical altercation.
These events are mostly fleetingly observed through the eyes of the children, who are otherwise preoccupying themselves with games and horseplay, including Christian accidentally falling off the roof into the pool, an event his oblivious parents fail to notice.
The film beautifully captures both the innocent bafflement of the younger children about the adults’ behavior and the cynical teenage perspective of Maggie, who has just lost her virginity that day.
There are a couple of too-clever ironic touches. The film is set on the day of Patty Hearst’s capture, with Maggie obviously relating to the fugitive heiress. And when she has sex with her boyfriend in the family garage, there’s a cut to a shot of one of the children threading a needle.
But these are small quibbles about an otherwise quietly moving and well-wrought drama marked by superb performances, including newcomer Harris in her screen acting debut. And it’s a pleasure, especially after his recent standout turns in “Winter’s Bone” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” to watch Hawkes solidly deliver the goods in a non-villainous role (as he also did in “The Sessions” this past fall).
“The Playroom,” a Freestyle release, is unrated. 83 minutes.