The split-level house of American dreams and boomer memories probably has never been used so evocatively or been as central to a movie as it is in "The Playroom." In the 1975-set coming-of-age drama - a kids'-eye view of adult malaise - that house is essentially a character, showcasing the generational disconnect through a cataclysmic night for one family.
Directed by Julia Dyer from a script by her late sister, Gretchen Dyer, the film uses the upper-middle-class setting effectively, even as it resorts to heavy-handed symbolism and melodrama in its dour, mostly unforgiving portrait of parental dysfunction.
It's a portrait that still manages to get under the skin, in large part thanks to Molly Parker and John Hawkes, who play the distracted and oblivious Cantwells: hard-drinking Donna and mild-mannered enabler Martin. Their four kids, led by teenager Maggie (first-timer Olivia Harris), regularly clean the living room of ashtrays and glasses from the folks' previous "grown-up evening."
When the partying starts up again, spiraling into a variation on "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" with a neighbor couple, the kids retreat to their attic playroom, where they spin fantastic tales of escape - an allegorical device that the movie exhausts.
The younger kids (Jonathon McClendon, Alexandra Doke, Ian Veteto), well defined and well played, are anything but movie-cutesy. If Harris finds little nuance in Maggie's sullen rebellion, she's a convincingly self-assured surrogate mother, determined to break away.
Recalling "The Ice Storm" but without the cinematic vigor of that Ang Lee masterpiece, the drama often feels posed and inert. Even so, it strikes more than a few chords as it digs deeper than period cliché.
• Not Rated: Language, nudity, sexual content, violence.
• Director: Julia Dyer.
• Cast: Molly Parker and John Hawkes Olivia Harris, Jonathon McClendon.
• Running time: 83 minutes.