Julia Dyer’s ’70s-set “The Playroom” examines a day in the life of the rapidly disintegrating Caldwell family, backgrounding the messed-up adults (John Hawkes, Molly Parker) and foregrounding four children carefully navigating a domestic minefield. Although Dyer’s sophomore feature clearly intends to capture the magical otherness of a child’s p.o.v., nothing in her strangely aloof mise-en-scene or her late sister Gretchen’s script yields anything more than a group of well-thesped, believable suburban kids upset by their parents’ behavior. Fans of “The Ice Storm” will find familiar tropes in this Feb. 8 limited release.
The eldest of the children, teenager Maggie (Olivia Harris, impressive in her thesping debut), serves as loving, occasionally exasperated, ersatz mother to the clan, which includes cynical but protective tween brother Christian (Jonathon McClendon); younger sister Janie (Alexandra Doke), frantically clinging to the dying myth of a loving family; and little Sam (Ian Veteto), quick to respond to a little kindness. Acting as a unit, the kids see themselves off to school and, upon their return, empty overflowing ashtrays and pick up shot glasses, ties and pantyhose with practiced economy.
At night, they gather in the titular playroom, light candles (the camera panning past Victorian dolls, jacks and other quaintly outmoded artifacts of childhood), and tell tales that, although character- and age-specific, all transparently reflect their current situation. These narrated stories often carry into subsequent scenes as voiceover.
Meanwhile, downstairs, the grownups are acting out. Mother Donna (Parker), a chain-smoking alcoholic, intermittently tends to the children by day, fixing dinner from what’s left in the fridge while downing booze. By night, she drunkenly carries on with a neighbor (Jonathan Brooks) while her disapproving but helpless husband, Martin (Hawkes), and the neighbor’s tearful wife (Lydia Mackay) look on.
Hawkes delivers a typically excellent performance in the role of the ineffectual husband and loving but out-of-touch father. Unsurprisingly, Martin’s attempt to re-create long-ago moments of family togetherness around the dinner table via a spelling bee soon degenerates into letter-by-letter insults.
Though all the kids more or less consciously witness their parents’ dysfunction, it’s Maggie who’s most directly impacted by her mother’s example. She rebelliously steals her mother’s birth-control pills and loses her virginity to her motorcycle-riding boyfriend (Cody Linley); the film awkwardly intercuts Maggie’s lovemaking in the garage with Sam’s ridiculously attempts to thread a needle just outside the garage door.
Dyer has written of her desire to create a child-centric film in the tradition of “Pan’s Labyrinth” or “The Spirit of the Beehive,” but everything anyone says or does here refers to the family breakup in strictly literal fashion. The candlelit playroom fails to evoke any sense of wonder, the kids singularly orthodox in their storytelling (no “Moonrise Kingdom” this). Even in its purely earthbound ambitions, “The Playroom” refuses to deviate an iota from its sad predictability.