Articulating the nuances of middle class, suburban racism, Little Boxes settles in a place somewhere between good intentions and a rigid screenplay. When an interracial family moves from New York City to an all-white town outside of Seattle, life becomes complicated, particularly for the family’s black father Mack (Nelsan Ellis) and preteen son Clark (Armani Jackson). Neighborly curiosity turns both Mack and Clark into amusing oddities, though Little Boxes often falls victim of a similarly narrow perspective on character.
In the summer before Clark begins 6th grade, Gina (Melanie Lynskey) adjusts to her new job on campus while her husband and son stay at home around the new neighborhood. Mack – a work-from-home writer – struggles the most outwardly. Apart from a distrust of his new community’s polite façade, Mack bears the responsibility of discovering broken appliances in their new home. His melodramatic overreactions to setbacks – particularly a drunken tirade against the home’s wallpaper – make his character hard to believe as a rational adult.
Meanwhile, Clark attracts the prying eyes of two young, white girls – the soft-spoken Julie (Miranda McKeon) and the groan-inducingly named Ambrosia (Oona Laurence). Predictably, Ambrosia is the easiest character to hate. Clark gets sucked into play dates in which the girls rehearse dance routines to suggestive songs with Clark as their audience.
Ambrosia’s interest in Clark isn’t pure or purely romantic, either; at her first sight of him, a not-yet-13-years-old Ambrosia bluntly comments to her friend that their neighborhood needed a black kid. Unfortunately for her, Clark is an educated young man with more enthusiasm for jazz than rap. She suggests that Clark speak a dirty phrase with an unnatural ebonics cadence, and Clark is too young – too unfamiliar with the dynamics at play in the situation – to understand this interaction as anything more than harmless fun.
It’s through these methods that Little Boxes seeks to make an overt point about subtler forms of racism. Tonally, the movie rarely diverts from its melodramatic rhythm in which its characters talk earnestly through their issues, always attempting to show respect. Everything is a bit too neat and polite in a manner that doesn’t mirror real life. After an afternoon Mack spends hanging out with new neighbor Tom (David Charles Ebert), the white friend remarks on how well spoken Mack is in comparison to other black men; however, that line is delivered as a mere drunken flub by a somewhat dim but well-meaning man.
Melanie Lynskey and Nelsan Ellis do their best to make a flat script more engaging, imbuing their characters with complexity beyond Annie Howell’s script. Lynskey is an actor who brings great empathy to her roles, and the concern she has to exhibit in this part feels genuine. Ellis’ role calls for far less theatrics. Often, he will demonstrate an entire thought process through the way his expression evolves in a scene. In moments of pain, a quick hesitation or cocked eyebrow speaks to his frustration more loudly than the character’s dialog.
Little Boxes’ child performers are not quite so subtle with their performances. Putting dialog about an intricate subject matter in the mouth of child tends to reveal the adults manipulating those performances, and the task of making all of these scenes believable seems too tall. As the lead amongst the film’s children, Armani Jackson is a very charming, and consistently endearing presence, but in Brandon’s moments of anger Armani can’t match the character’s level of outrage.
Little Boxes is a necessary step forward out of the literal and metaphorical past for race relations genre films, but its ideas are limited to the ways that white people alienate their black acquaintances, and the disruptive effect that treatment can have on a black person. Yet, the film fails to sustain its original tension as the central family’s irritating refusal to communicate honestly with each other delays inevitable confrontations. Very little feels truly resolved by ending.
The unchanging tone in the second feature film from director Rob Meyer (A Birder’s Guide to Everything) becomes grating after 90 minutes. Within Little Boxes are sincerely clever depictions of troubling racial dynamics, but the characterization of both Mack and his son Clark feels limited in its uniformity. Despite its occasional smart commentary, the film offers a limited, one-note response to modern day racism.
Failing to puncture the tension with consistent humor, the self-seriousness of each scene grows increasingly tedious as Little Boxes runs out of stimulating material.