Child characters endowed with adult intelligence tend to be disappointing puppets through which authors articulate their own views. But allowing a brilliant fictional child her own voice and agency (not to mention age-appropriate behavior) represents this whole other imaginative leap — riskier, but way more interesting and rewarding if actually pulled off.
The Playroom, directed by Julia Dyer from an outstanding script by her sister, the late Gretchen Dyer, is a funny, sad and ultimately redemptive story of a single evening in the lives of four brilliant children neglected by self-absorbed parents. Maggie (Olivia Harris), the eldest of the Cantwell children, shepherds her younger siblings through the film's first five minutes with an older sister's mixture of affection and exasperation, settling them into their after-school routines of homework and play. Then she cleans up the remnants of her parents' alcoholic debauch from the previous night and sneaks away for the one brief moment of fulfillment the script allows her: She loses her virginity to her boyfriend in the family's garage.
It's September 19, 1975, the day Patty Hearst was arrested, and Maggie is waking up from her own bout of Stockholm syndrome. The whole opening is packed with details, subliminal and overt, that produce a vivid interlinear picture of the Cantwell parents as narcissistic 1970s swingers.
Sixteen years into parenthood, Janie Cantwell (Alexandra Doke) refuses to look beyond the gratification of her own urges, and her husband, Martin (John Hawkes), is too weak to emerge from beneath his own. Doke is a naturally appealing personality with a warm affect that softens the meaner edges of her characters, and she endows Janie with enough sympathy to inspire more pity than loathing. The only thing Janie denies herself is the expression of empathy with her children.
Martin is all paternal didacticism and guilt. He knows that Maggie has become the only parent the younger children have. Realizing his family is dissolving, he finds utility in parading Maggie through Janie's make-out party, hoping to make his wife feel guilty, oblivious to how his daughter might react.
The one scene in which they interact as a family, a dinner and impromptu spelling bee, is interrupted by the leisure-suited neighbor couple, the Knottses, with whom the Cantwells spend their nights partying. The children are consigned to the house's playroom, in the attic above the second story.
It's here that the film finds its framing device. The children opt to spend the night in the playroom, but when they're unable to sleep, Maggie tells them an improvised bedtime story with protagonists whose problems map to their own. Shards of the story punctuate the film, a tale of orphans, loss and flight, recognizable even in the film's earliest moments as something urgent and meaningful. All of this is managed by the Dyer sisters with the gentle deliberateness of handling something newborn.
J.D. Salinger's genius child Franny Glass knows that she flies in her sleep because when she wakes up, her fingers are dusty from touching the light bulbs. That's overly precious; The Playroom jettisons all things cute, but still takes flight by portraying the characters, adult and juvenile, under direct lighting, and asking you if you care about them.