As the thorny matter of eminent domain — the power of the government to seize private property for debatably public use — continues to flare up in American headlines, Courtney Moorehead Balaker’s “Little Pink House” arrives on screens as an earnest, adamant statement of opposition. Revisiting the Supreme Court’s famously contentious decision in the 2005 case of Kelo vs. City of New London, which ruled against a Connecticut homeowner standing her ground in the face of redevelopment by the Pfizer Corporation, Balaker’s heartfelt film holds attention as a straightforward account of a complicated case, and benefits from the intelligent, careworn presence of Catherine Keener as its human anchor amid all the procedural to-and-fro. If the story’s political and personal nuances have been a bit flattened in Balaker’s script, keeping proceedings in a movie-of-the-week register, this “Little Pink House” nonetheless retains what property developers would call good bones.
As it stands, the film’s approach hovers halfway between a conscientious community mosaic — of the type John Sayles excelled in at his peak — and a more linear issue drama of the “A Civil Action” variety, though it lack the specificity of character and process, respectively, that marks the best films in either subgenre. It’s at its most affecting when its focus is most domestic, charting cumulative strains and stresses on the life of Susette Kelo (Keener), the unassuming paramedic who reluctantly became a people’s champion as she fought city hall and beyond to save her modest waterside house in the working-class town of New London, Connecticut.
Set in 1997, a somewhat rushed, disjointed opening reel establishes Susette’s backstory in slightly squeezed shorthand: We’re shown her walking out on her second husband, resettling in New London and buying and renovating the dilapidated cottage that would become the brightly colored symbolic center of a cause célèbre. Confusingly, the pre-credit sequence places undue emphasis on a subsequently undeveloped reunion with former schoolmate Paulette (Barbara Tyson) — later a fellow victim in the eminent domain battle — that feels like a curtailed remnant from previous script drafts. This grassroots drama is promising, though structurally, “Little Pink House” finds a smoother groove when the wheels start turning in local politicos’ plans to sell the prime strip of land on which Susette’s house stands to Pfizer, then high on the first wave of Viagra marketing.
As the development team’s chief lobbyist Charlotte Wells — a thinly fictionalized version of former Connecticut College president Claire Gaudiani — Jeanne Tripplehorn is rather thanklessly charged with embodying the unremitting, corporation-first mentality of eminent domain at its most capitalist and opportunistic. Permanently clothed in power suits and pearls, her speech peppered with contrived French phrases, she’s a venal cartoon villain who doesn’t quite exist in the same world as Susette and her salt-of-the-earth neighbors. That may well be the point and principle of the script as the two women go head-to-head, though there’s a jarring inconsistency in between the Hollywood-ized dramatization of the higher-ups’ interactions (“We’re getting hammered in the press!” one bigwig exclaims, all but puffing on a cigar as he does so) and the lower-key realism of the New London residents’ struggle.
Still, it’s rousing where it needs to be, as young, impassioned Institute for Justice lawyer Scott Bullock (Giacomo Baessato) takes Susette’s case all the way to the top. Meanwhile, if the buoyant outcome you’d expect in a fictional legal drama of this nature is unavoidably twisted by the reality of the Supreme Court outcome, it’s all the more poignant for that disruption. That the Court justices taking Kelo’s side in the final ruling were largely on the right rather than the left is an interesting irony that Balaker’s liberal-minded film doesn’t address as sharply as it might; with President Donald Trump having placed himself on the side of eminent domain, however, “Little Pink House” is unlikely to be the last conflict-riven drama we see on this subject in years to come.