There are a million movies about country bumpkins going to the big city: fish out of water hilarity ensues. In this case, a family does the opposite migration; they move from Brooklyn to small town Washington and culture shock ensues. In fact, the Burns family has a flat-out identity crisis. Mom Gina (Melanie Lynskey) has accepted a new tenure-track position at the local college but her new colleagues find her photography to be a little “New York centrist”. Dad Mack (Nelsan Ellis) struggles to keep up with is cooking show critiques without working appliances – the moving truck hasn’t arrived yet, so he’s chasing them instead of devoting time to his second novel. And son Clark (Armani Jackson) is finding out how it feels to be the only black kid in town as he attempts to befriend some girls who are looking for a token minority third.
You might almost want to call Little Boxes a companion piece to Jordan Peele’s Get Out for its quiet inspection of white liberal racism, but the truth is, this one lacks bite. It’s a little too tame in its condemnation. But what makes the film worthwhile is the excellent family dynamic between Lynskey, Ellis, and Jackson. I always feel chuffed to see Lynskey in anything; she’s the Queen of indie movies and I bow down before her. Ellis was strong right out of the gate, but I struggled to place him. It was the voice that tipped me off: I knew him from somewhere. It took until the last scenes of the movie before I had my light bulb moment – True Blood (he played the cook, Lafayette). Even the kid is good, and I’m of the opinion that child actors can make or break your project. Too many directors don’t spend near enough time finding a kid who’s more than just cute. I’m happy to report that Jackson earns his spot in the Burns trifecta. They make a family you’ll fall in love with immediately, which is what makes it so effective when they hit a rough patch. Their disharmony transfers to us.
The messiness of life is addressed honestly if not always subtly. There are many ways in which to not fit in, and Little Boxes finds at least three. But it also finds a comforting way to put things back together, and maybe that’s the point, not the oddly-shaped puzzle pieces that life gives us, but the glue that holds them together.