“Little Boxes” is a mild comedy about one family trying to settle in their new neighborhood. Although the result is less edgy and satiric than it could be while not showing anything particularly new about its familiar main subjects, we get several small moments of humor as its three main characters clumsily try to adjust themselves to their new environment, and its three main cast members carry the film well together on the whole even when the movie spins its wheels from time to time.
In the beginning, we are introduced to Gina McNulty-Burns (Melanie Lynskey) and her African American husband Mack Burns (Nelsan Ellis), who are soon going to leave their Brooklyn neighborhood in New York City along with their son Clark (Armani Jackson) because Gina recently accepted a position in some college located in Washington State. Gina hopes that this will be the new beginning for her artistic/academic career, and Mack expects to have a more peaceful environment for his writing, but Clark is not so happy about this change as he will be far away from his school friends.
Anyway, when they finally arrive in a small suburban area near the college where Gina is going to work, everything looks promising on the surface. She bought a big house which will give them more space than before, and they are soon welcomed by one of their new neighbors, who cheerfully encourages Clark to hang around with other kids in the neighborhood.
However, there is a problem which turns out to be more annoying than expected. Many of stuffs belonging to them are somehow stuck somewhere in the delivery route, so the house remains to be mostly empty as before, and Gina and her family cannot help but feel uncertain about whether they can settle in their new neighborhood, which surely feels quieter but less eventful than their old Brooklyn neighborhood. At least, Gina has some new colleagues on whom she can lean in her workplace, but Mack often feels bored and frustrated as his writing process is not improved much on the whole, and the same thing can be said about Clark, who comes to spend more time with two young girls in the neighborhood because, well, there is nothing to do for him before the new semester begins in his new school.
The most humorous moments in the film come from the dryly wry observation of how these main characters slowly let themselves mired in the ennui of their suburban neighborhood. Although she will surely have to prepare a lot for the upcoming semester in the college, Gina does not say no when her new colleagues suggest that she should have more fun along with them outside. As a result, she later finds herself pretty drunk during one night, and she comes to wonder whether her life and career reach to a dead end,
In case of Mack, he finds himself aimlessly walking here and there around his new neighborhood after getting more frustrated with his writing process. When he happens to draw the attention of others as a new local writer in the town, he is not so happy because he does not have anything to show off besides his first and only book published some years ago, and, as one of a few colored residents in the neighborhood, he also has to tolerate an insensitive remark from one Caucasian neighbor at one point.
Meanwhile, Clark becomes more interested in getting closer to one of the two girls with whom he has been hanging around for days, though he is well aware that these two girls are curious about him mainly for his racial background. There is a little absurd moment when he and they talk a bit about those contemporary rappers, and we come to wince more as observing how they are often unintentionally insensitive to Clark.
As its three main characters struggle more and more with their respective situations, the screenplay by Annie Howell gradually increases the level of anxiety and discontent among them, though it does not always succeed in my humble opinion. For instance, a part involved with a certain hygiene problem in the house is a bit too blatantly symbolic, and the last act feels heavy-handed as eventually fizzling out without much dramatic impact.
The movie is still worthwhile to watch to some degree mainly due to the diligent efforts from its three main cast members. Melanie Lynskey, who has been one of the dependable actresses since her unforgettable breakout turn in Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures” (1994), subtly expresses her character’s increasingly anxious state of mind, Nelsan Ellis, who unfortunately died not long after the movie was released, complements his co-start well with his seemingly calm and reserved attitude. As another crucial part of the story, Armani Jackson holds his own place well between Lynskey and Ellis, and Oona Laurence is also solid as a carefree young girl interested in Clark for a wrong reason.
“Little Boxes”, whose title is evidently derived from that famous satiric song of the same name, is dissatisfying compared to other acclaimed suburban films such as, yes, “American Beauty” (1999), but it is not a total dud at least thanks to the competent direction of director Rob Meyer and his good main cast members. I was not bored during my viewing, but I still think it could do more beyond being merely amused by suburban ennui.