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D: Rob Meyer / 89m

Cast: Melanie Lynskey, Nelsan Ellis, Armani Jackson, Oona Laurence, Miranda McKeon, Christine Taylor, Janeane Garofalo, Nadia Dajani, Veanne Cox, Maliq Johnson

Gina McNulty (Lynskey) and Marcus “Mac” Burns (Ellis) are an interracial couple with a young, pre-teen son, Clark (Jackson). Gina is a photographer, while Mac is trying to come up with an idea for his second novel, his first having been published to moderate acclaim. They live in Brooklyn, have a nice, comfortable middle-class lifestyle, a great social life, and lots of friends with similar backgrounds and life experiences. In short, they’re comfortable. But their lives are about to change when Gina accepts a teaching job at a university in Rome, Washington State. Travelling across the country by road, they arrive at their new home to find the removals truck isn’t there (and won’t be for a while), and that they’ll have to make do until it does. A set of inflatable mattresses and a camping stove later, and they’ve officially moved in.

Rome proves to be a predominantly white town, with virtually no other ethnic groups represented there. This reveals itself slowly to the trio, and in different ways. Gina is accepted immediately by some of the female, tenured professors. Mac goes for long walks listening to free-form jazz on his MP3 player and encounters several of the locals who seem overly pleased that he’s moved there. Clark begins spending time with two girls near his own age, Ambrosia (Laurence) and Julie (McKeon). Gina’s acceptance is based on her being artistic and a woman. Mac’s acceptance is based on his being black, and when the local bookseller finds out, a published author. Clark is popular with Ambrosia and Julie because he’s ostensibly black and doesn’t mind being treated like a show-and-tell friend.

But at the same time, their acceptance by the townsfolk of Rome leads to divisions within the family. While Gina goes off to the university, and Clark spends more and more time with his “girlfriends”, Mac stays at home and works on an article for an online food blog. They spend less and less time together. As they adapt to their new surroundings, further cracks begin to appear in what used to be their comfortable lifestyle. Arguments and disagreements ensue, and Clark, determined to live up to Ambrosia and Julie’s expectations of him, begins acting like a surly teenager. When things go a little too far between him and Ambrosia, Gina and Mac begin to feel a sense of isolation, and it’s not long before they’re wondering if moving to Rome was such a good idea in the first place.

Diversity and equality seem to be cinematic buzzwords at the moment. The number of movies addressing issues surrounding racism and racial inclusion/exclusion seems to have increased exponentially in the wake of the OscarsSoWhite controversy in 2016. That most of these movies were in production before last year’s Oscar ceremony seems to point also to some kind of cinematic zeitgeist finally making itself felt. But one thing’s for sure: you won’t find a more low-key, or subtle, examination of middle class racism than in Little Boxes.

It’s a movie that takes reverse (or positive) discrimination and makes it feel just as insidious as direct discrimination. Mac is out walking when one of his neighbours asks if he needs any help. The inference is clear: it’s a white neighbourhood, and Mac shouldn’t be there. But the neighbour quickly realises that Mac should be there, and from then on it’s all okay, and Mac is treated like an old friend. The turnaround is sharply made and hard to dismiss as anything other than tokenism. Mac is initially bemused by this sort of thing, but as time goes on, he begins to like it, even though deep down he also despises it. Meanwhile, Clark is learning that fitting in can mean a loss of identity, but as long as Ambrosia and Julie spend time with him and include him in what they’re doing (mostly dance routines and lounging by the pool), then he seems happy to be the person they think he is: a cool black kid that only they are friends with.

It could be argued that, along with its glacial, racial undertones, Little Boxes is also about maintaining oneself in the context of a new environment. Mac struggles because he lacks a defined purpose. His writing appears stalled, and he’s more concerned about the mould he discovers in the house than anything else. And he’s easily led astray by his neighbour, knocking back uppers and ending up in a bar. For Gina, the path towards fitting in is paved with good intentions and liquid lunches with her colleagues. She does her best to fit in but finds it causes too many problems, problems that she discovers she’s ill-equipped to deal with. Clark’s growing rebelliousness adds to the lack of unity and faith in each other that all three had previously in Brooklyn, and it soon becomes obvious that this is a family that may have made a really bad decision in transporting themselves so far out of their combined comfort zones.

But while the movie examines these themes with candour and no small amount of intelligence thanks to Annie J. Howell’s perceptive script, it doesn’t make the family’s disintegration too believable. Just why their close-knit harmony and commitment to each other should fall apart so easily is never explained, and without this, the movie falls into the trap of presenting the trials and tribulations of a moderately well-to-do middle class family in an indie setting, and expecting the audience to feel sorry for them. Sadly, this doesn’t happen, and not just because these are characters who have attained a certain level of privilege in their lives, but because the trials and tribulations that they face operate on the level of minor farce. There’s nothing here that the average family couldn’t overcome or deal with as soon as it arose. Yes, it’s another movie where the characters say a lot, but aren’t actually talking to each other.

Thankfully, most of this is offset by the quality of the performances. Lynskey is a pleasure to watch – as always – and portrays Gina’s growing insecurities and bafflement with her usual sincerity. Ellis is on equally fine form, ensuring Mac is equally unsure of himself and his current role in life, and displaying Mac’s wounded pride when things he knows he can do, don’t go so well. Jackson, meanwhile, has that knack that most child actors have of not even appearing to be acting, so good is he as Clark, and he acquits himself so well it appears almost effortless. In the director’s seat, Meyer does a fine job on the whole, but can’t find a way to keep the audience sympathetic to the family and their woes (mostly because they’re self-inflicted). It’s not a movie that has a particularly distinctive visual style, and the narrative stops and starts a little too often, but it does have enough substance to keep viewers occupied, even if, in the end, they’ll find it hard to be concerned by what’s happening.

Rating: 6/10 – several nods to small-town inverse racist attitudes and the fragility of the nuclear family can’t save Little Boxes (a metaphorical title if ever there was one) from failing to connect with the viewer; good performances and a waspish sense of humour go some way to making up for the areas where the movie struggles to provide depth or resonance, but most viewers will find themselves disappointed by so much effort yielding a much smaller return than expected.