True to its deceptively simple title, there’s a lot going on in “Little Boxes,” in spite of how empty those boxes may seem to its characters. More than a reference to the suburban home that the film’s central family has moved into in the pleasant enough burgh of Rome in Washington state, Mack (Nelsan Ellis), Gina (Melanie Lynskey) and their son Clark (Armani Jackson) have trouble adjusting to their new life, though it’s suggested the environs of Brooklyn weren’t all that more comfortable. However, even if their belongings ever arrive thanks to a moving mix-up, they appear as if they’ll never be able to truly settle – unlike their neighbors, they still have the desire to rebel against a life of routine rather than conform to it because it’s easier, or at least that’s an assumption they make, like the many they themselves do of all of them.
Armed with Annie J. Howell’s trenchant screenplay, Rob Meyer has made clear with his second film, following the coming of age tale, “A Birder’s Guide to Everything” that he enjoys a certain stylistic austerity that allows the complications to fill out the space and here, he delivers plenty of doozies. In a house with bare walls and no furniture, the family of creatives – Gina’s a street photographer, making a living as an assistant professor, and Mack’s an author who makes money blogging remotely, while Clark desperately wants to learn how to dance – don’t see opportunity in the empty rooms, only the mold, as Mack comes to discover literally. As a mixed-race family with parents whose jobs keep them away from their art, the clan keeps running up against limitations that prevent them from seeing what’s in front of them, just as they are gawked at by the locals like they were exotic animals, told by the woman next door during a welcome visit, “You’re so interesting…,” her voice withering suddenly as she thinks through the compliment to say, “I hope you like it here,”as if it were the only thing of value she could offer.
It’s touchy subject matter to be sure, but Meyer handles it cleverly, embracing Mack and Clark’s love of freeform jazz to amp up the existing anxieties in the house with a trumpet-heavy score, and giving every character the room to reveal themselves gradually, illuminating the notion that no one is exactly who they appear to be at first. It’s become easy to take for granted the nuance and naturalism of Lynskey and Ellis, who both have been so good for so long in films like “Hello I Must Be Going” and “Get On Up,” respectively, but they’re ideal casting for a film that rarely tips its hand as to how you should feel, and nearly every supporting role seems to be an opportunity to inject a great deal of personality into the proceedings, with the likes of Christine Taylor, Janeane Garafalo and Nadia Dajani showing up to ensure that while the townsfolk of Rome may seem dull to the New Yorkers, they do not project that way to an audience. The young Oona Laurence (“Lamb”) also proves to be a scene-stealer as a mouthy pre-teen who proves the adage a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, given how adult some of the words she knows are.
The bright aesthetic of “Little Boxes” suggests that there might be more laughs than the film actually has, but still it gets its licks in with the many misconceptions produced by cultural collisions that ironically happen within a culture that should be one. In choosing subtle subversion over pointed satire, “Little Boxes” gets to be both a satisfying family drama and a provocative comedy, and for a film that shows how unfortunate easy labels can be, it resoundingly proves its point by not easily being categorized itself.
“Little Boxes” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 19th at the Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas at 3:15 pm, April 21st at the Regal Cinemas Battery Park at 8:30 pm and April 24 at the Regal Cinemas Battery Park at 4:30 pm.