Racial profiling has an interesting inverse effect on the victim and the offender. The offender uses racial profiling to group black people together into one definite set of stereotypes because he or she thinks they’re all the same. But, according to writer Annie J. Howell, the victim of racial profiling can feel isolated, alone on an island with their own unique identity that nobody else can see. It’s like being on a raft in the middle of the ocean with no help in sight, and when the raft pops and the air starts flying out, it’s unclear as to how long it will take for the raft to deflate and the drifter starts sinking into the ocean.
In Little Boxes, the new film directed by Rob Meyer from Ms. Howell’s screenplay, the deflating raft is actually an air mattress set up by Gina (Melanie Lynskey) and Mack (Nelsan Ellis), an interracial couple who just moved from the quirky cool vibes of New York City to a little suburb in Washington state. Gina has a new job teaching at a local college, Mack is a cook and author, and their 11-year-old son Clark (Armani Jackson) is a free-jazz fan. All three of them are immediately the talk of the town, with Gina day-drinking with an enthusiastic fellow professor (Janeane Garofalo) and Clark becoming the new arm candy of two prissy girls (Oona Laurence and Miranda McKeon) who “totally needed a black kid.” All three of them start to feel unsure of their identity in this new community, as if their sanity is molding like the walls in their home.
Imagine if Get Out was made by the early-2000s Sundance crowd with no elements of horror or suspense. Meyer is a very competent director and knows how to set up the occasional awkward punchline, especially in the scenes with Clark and the two Washington state valley girls. The problem is that, despite tackling a very prominent and relevant issue of suburban racism in modern America, Little Boxes is a simple and predictable movie. Mack and Clark are the cool black nerds that everybody wants to be friends with, even though they both seem to want to be left to their own devices. Gina is the awkward newcomer trying to fit in with the cool new kids, even if those “kids” are 40-something professors awkwardly singing karaoke in the early afternoon. It’s three fish out of water stories with racial undertones that don’t say anything new. Even the eventual release of tension between Gina and Mack lasts only two minutes and is tossed aside for the rest of the movie. Under 90 minutes long, the story still manages to feels thin and very stretched out.
At the very least there’s legitimate talent acting in front of the camera. Both Lynskey and Ellis are capable talents in drama and comedy, so the two have solid chemistry onscreen. Unfortunately they’re given nothing to work with in their solo scenes, left only to gawk at the awkward comedy scenarios and not deepen their characters. It feels like Lynskey and Ellis are entirely disposable since most of the interesting scenes revolve around the Clark character, played with impressive restraint by Jackson. Seeing him come into maturity through association with Laurence and McKeon (the other MVPs of the film) from the hip, outsider cool of New York City to the overstimulated, bored kids of the suburbs. Maybe the funniest gag of the movie is seeing the two girls dance to a hyper-sexual female rapper and Clark looking like he’s making first contact with alien life forms. Maybe the movie would’ve been better served with all focus on the introverted Clark and trying to find his place in the most unusual of settings (i.e. the modern American suburb).
The greatest error in Little Boxes is that, despite dealing with a very serious and resonant topic, it’s essentially harmless. It says nothing new and it’s not funny enough to distract from how toothless it reveals itself to be. It could’ve been longer to build the characters better or could’ve just been about one character to carry the movie, but Little Boxes seems afraid to step out of its indie-dramedy comfort zone.