The quartet of brothers and sisters in Julia Dyer’s ’70s-set drama The Playroom spend a lot of time exploring the mysteries of their own split-level suburban home: finding change in the cushions, pills in the drawers, and the remnants of the swinging parties that their parents (John Hawkes and Molly Parker) throw with their favorite bridge partners almost every night. The Playroom is best when it’s just about these kids, on their own in a big house with lots of nooks and crannies in which to nestle. The way Dyer stages the action, the house is as rich in possibility as any fantasy realm. Dyer shoots through windows, up and down staircases, and in an attic that’s become a sanctuary, providing the perspective of children well-used to seeing what they aren’t supposed to, while fending for themselves. Working from a screenplay by her late sister Gretchen, Dyer shows a real affinity for these siblings—each at different stages of awareness of what their parents are up to during their nightly drunken revelry—and especially for the oldest, Olivia Harris, who’s become the de facto mom to her brothers and sister while still trying to be a typical teenager.
But where the Dyers have a strong connection to the children, they’re far less generous to the parents. Hawkes and Parker’s carousing is rooted in vague marital problems that The Playroom makes no effort to explain or understand, and while the kids amuse themselves, the grown-ups and their friends/lovers play out a psychodrama so generic that it’s almost like they’ve all just met, not like they’ve been drunkenly groping each other between rubbers for years. Making matters worse, The Playroom tries to connect the upstairs and downstairs via voiceovers of the kids telling heavily metaphorical fairy tales about a world with no adults. The performances in The Playroom are good—and Harris in particular is impressive in her first movie role—but what little story there is has no sense of real life, no matter much the film pretends to be about children learning hard truths. More than anything, The Playroom feels like an excuse to explore this retro house from a child’s point of view—which is perfectly okay, provided no one breaks the spell by talking.