The Playroom, Julia Dyer’s under-realized tale of children coming of age and marriages falling apart, transpires on two levels both narratively and physically: As Martin (John Hawkes) and Donna Cantwell (Molly Parker) carry out an evening of debauchery straight out of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the living room, their children hide out in the attic, playing games and telling a story, narrated over the length of the film, about four kids who run away from home to “a country where children have no parents.” Lapses into on-the-nose symbolism aside (at a dinner-time spelling bee, Martin asks one of the children to spell “sanctuary,” and then, with a knowing stare, tells Donna to tackle “matrimonial”), Dyer neatly combines these layers of metaphor and plotting to examine the stories and lies the Cantwells use to disguise their deteriorating family life. The four kids are each at different phases of exposure to their parents’ alcoholism and at equally different levels of acceptance about the ongoing effort to cover up that anything is wrong. So while Martin and the youngest daughter, Janie (Alexandra Doke), discuss why it “feels special” to have Donna’s bacon and eggs for dinner, Maggie (Olivia Harris), the eldest, who by this point routinely fills in as caregiver for her three siblings, notes that the choice is more suited to breakfast, the meal Donna missed because she was nursing a hangover.
The combination of parental dysfunction and children’s escapism does place childhood innocence, and its disturbing disappearance, at the fore. But the film handles it in a thoughtfully unromantic manner: It doesn’t so much lament the pain of growing up as it condemns those adults who make children dread the idea in the first place. Unfortunately, the film suffers significantly from a set of superficial characters. Parker especially never rises above a sketch profile of an alcoholic mother and dissatisfied wife. Hawkes fares better, bringing tenderness to a father who mostly exudes lamentable self-pity and at one point stands with drooping, drunken eyes in front of Maggie asking, “Is there anything I can do to help?” Lacking much in the way of character depth, the film attempts to fill the gap with melodrama. But when tempers eventually clash and the unsaid becomes spoken, the incidents lack spark, because while The Playroom engages us with its thoughts on childhood and growing up in general, by the end it’s hard to get past how little we actually know about the Cantwells in particular.