The light drama of Little Boxes concerns a familiar tale of displacement. Mack (Nelsan Ellis), Gina (Melanie Lynskey), and their son, Clark (Armani Jackson), are an appealing mixed-race Brooklyn family who move to the suburbs when Gina accepts a promising art professorship in small-town Washington. Adjusting to this new, extremely white neighborhood is no easy task, and we witness plenty of cringe-inducing moments of passive-aggressive suburban chitchat: “You are so interesting,” a neighbor tells Mack and Gina, but it’s not a compliment. The film is sharper in its observation of urban pretensions than suburban blandness. Clark, adorably Afro’d, with an inquisitive expression on his face, at one point describes his music tastes as “Afropunk, Björk, Nineties hip-hop, and free jazz.” He delivers this answer with a tossed-off confidence that is somehow both disarming and maddeningly twee, nailing a certain profile of precocious Brooklyn preteen.
Gina’s photography focuses on “gender performativity” and her class is on “the female gaze.” These characters — upper middle class, urban, liberal — are familiar types, though they’re positioned by the film as automatically more interesting than the suburbanites (the ones in “little boxes”). The inelegant tendencies of the family’s new colleagues verge on cliché; an oafish white bro says of Mack, “If you close your eyes you can’t even tell he’s black.” While racist slights remain unfortunately common, Little Boxes doesn’t exactly use them to illuminate the nuances of suburban life. The moral for the most part is that New Yorkers are cooler than suburbanites, expressed in a cloying metaphor in the family’s new home: Mold persists under the wallpaper, signifying that not everything’s perfect in these seemingly charming houses.
Directed by Rob Meyer
Gunpowder & Sky
Opens April 14, Village East Cinema