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Movie review: 'The Playroom'

Posted 7:20am on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013

Unrated (adult themes); 83 min.


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 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.

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 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.

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.

The film beautifully captures both the innocent bafflement of the younger children about the adults' behavior and the cynical teenage perspective of Maggie.

There are a couple of too-clever ironic touches. 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, Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Sessions, to watch Hawkes solidly deliver the goods.

Exclusive: The Texas Theatre, Dallas

-- Frank Scheck, Hollywood Reporter

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