A child character endowed with an adult’s intelligence is often a disappointing puppet through which an author articulates his or her 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 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: She loses her virginity in the family’s garage. The children 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. 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.
Julia DyerJohn Hawkes, Molly Parker, Olivia Harris, Jonathon McClendon, Alexandra Doke, Ian Veteto, Johnathan Brooks, Lydia Mackay, Cody LinleyGretchen DyerAngie Meyer, Stephen DyerFreestyle Releasing