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(On left): Molly Parker and Olivia Harris play Donna and Maggie Cantwell.
"The Playroom," directed by Julia Dyer and starring Molly Parker and John Hawkes, is a dark and disturbing slice of life focused on a dysfunctional alcoholic and her affect of her family -- her husband and her four young children. The kids might be alright, but things are not happy days on this homestead. Acting more adult than their parents, they are relegated to cleaning up the aftermath of late night parties after school and trapped essentially in the playroom upstairs while the parties ensue. Maggie, the teenage daughter understands more than the others the reality of the situation and acts surrogate mother to the others, bandaging boo boos, mending egos and helping with homework and putting the kids to bed when mommy is too drunk and selfish to take care of it herself. The children turn to storytelling, the innocent making of paper dolls, reading or playing out an elaborate fantasy in order to escape the harsh realities of home. Meanwhile, Maggie turns to her motorcycle-riding boyfriend for comfort.
(On right: Molly Parker and director Julia Dyer at Cinema Paradiso screening Nov. 2 at FLIFF)
The acting is believable, especially from the parental units. Hawkes plays a milktoast conservative dad to Parker's flirtatious and hedonistic gadabout. Maggie is played by Olivia Harris, who gives the most well-rounded performance of the bunch and this is her first film role. It is also the first acting role for little Ian Veteto, who plays a cute-as-a-button Sam. The two middle children (Janie) Alexandra Doke and (Christian) Jonathon McClendon hold their own.
The Knotts, the fellow partygoers, played by Jonathan Brooks and Lydia MacKay almost play caricatures fulfilling their role in creating the climax of this film. But overall, all of the characters play a typical role found in most alcoholic households -- Maggie is the scapegoat. Sam is the clown. Perhaps Christian is the lost child (who buries himself silently in books) and always-seeking-approval Janie is the hero.
Anyone who lived through the 70s will be thrown back to that era from the authentic house to the furniture and lifestyle. But it will affect most those who have experienced an alcoholic household.
During the Friday, Nov. 2 screening at Cinema Paradiso, Dyer said that her older sister, Gretchen, wrote the story based on her view of some of the events in her own life, but unfortunately, she died from a heart and lung condition before the film was completed. She did help cast the role of Maggie, however, and Harris did have a chance to chat with Gretchen, which was essential.
Parker became very emotional when discussing the pain her character felt and the sadness in the film, saying the character loved her children very much, but the alcohol took over. Parker purposefully distanced herself from the children before shooting in order to translate that distance into the film, but being that Harris was almost an adult, she did spend more time with her on set.