A family of three experiences a culture clash with their move from New York City to suburban Washington in “Little Boxes.” The second film from director Rob Meyer (whose “A Birder’s Guide to Everything” bowed at Tribeca three years ago) is low on dramatic incident but high on likability thanks to its central trio played by Melanie Lynskey, Nelsan Ellis and Armani Jackson. Gently touching on issues of race, class and privilege, the aptly titled pic proves to be a modest work in every way. Theatrical exposure will be negligible at best, but fans of the actors should find it a pleasant enough diversion on VOD or streaming outlets.
Accustomed to the diversity and intellectual pursuits of big city living, but frustrated with diminishing career opportunities, photographer Gina (Lynskey) accepts a cushy college job that requires a cross country move to Rome, Washington. Her writer hubby Mack (Ellis) is struggling to get through his second book, and their 11-year-old son Clark (Jackson) loves listening to jazz and reading the adventures of Nigel Fishponds (the film’s equivalent of Harry Potter). Blissfully unaware of the lifestyle change that awaits, they embark on their next chapter with the greatest of expectations.
The warning signs quickly pile up when they arrive in their spacious new house several days ahead of their belongings, and Mack almost immediately senses something rotten beneath the surface (there’s mold in them thar walls). The next few days present a series of challenges for each member of the family, as they meet potential new friends drawn to these seemingly exotic strangers (a little bit because they’re an interracial couple with a biracial child, but even more because they hail from the Big Apple).
It’s young Clark who gets the biggest arc, involving precocious peer Ambrosia (Oona Laurence of “Southpaw”) who takes one look at the new kid and excitedly exclaims, “We totally needed a black kid. This town, it’s so white!” to lanky pal Julie (newcomer Miranda McKeon). Ambrosia sets her sights on seduction, armed with the uncomfortably provocative dance moves of fictional hip-hop star Two Bit (who, one of the kids notes matter-of-factly, “used to be a ho”), and plots to get Clark alone during one of their unsupervised after-school hangouts in Julie’s home.
Meanwhile, Gina finds herself drawn into a clique of arty professors lead by assertive Helena (Janeane Garofalo), who devote most of their days to alcohol and gossip, and Mack wanders the neighborhood looking for inspiration and finding only the gregarious head of the homeowner’s association (David Charles Ebert), who is a little too eager to prove he’s totally not a racist (spoiler alert: he totally is).
As scripted by filmmaker Annie J. Howell, “Little Boxes” attempts to bridge a presumably great divide between urban and suburban, intellectuals and regular Joes, and the good-natured and no doubt well-intentioned effort can’t help but come off somewhat condescending in the process. The idea that Gina and Mack are both judged and judgy (they face their own prejudices in dealing with Ambrosia’s working class single mom, nicely underplayed by Christine Taylor) is intended to underscore the “Crash”-like theme that we’re all a little bit prejudiced, sans any heavy handed speeches or handwringing.
The exploration of pre-teen sexuality emerges as a similarly mixed bag, with Laurence asked to shimmy around and undress discreetly in uncomfortable scenes of kids awkwardly adopting adult behavior that the generally lighthearted film can’t quite support.
But “Little Boxes” functions much better as a portrait of a family unit, especially by allowing the often underserved talents of Lynskey and Ellis to take turns in the spotlight. Their knack for crafting warm, funny and credible characters is capably matched by the promising skills of captivating tween Jackson (who recurred on “Grey’s Anatomy”). Even as some of the supporting players and subplots veer toward caricature, the family dynamics at the film’s center remain entirely relatable.