Sunday, July 16, 2017

R.I.P. Nelsan Ellis: Little Boxes Offers An Esoteric Goodbye To The Talented Actor.

The Good: Wonderful performances, Good themes
The Bad: Oppressively awkward tone, Unlikable characters,Virtually plotless
The Basics: Little Boxes is a depressingly awkward film that interestingly explores racism in the suburbs with an interethnic family that could truly stand to talk more with one another.

When Nelsan Ellis died just over a week ago, I was shocked, much like pretty much everyone else. Like many fans, I knew Ellis from True Blood (reviewed here!) more than any of his other works, but I recall when True Blood was on the air, I watched interviews with the actor and it only raised my appreciation for how he performed on True Blood. So, I was pretty psyched to look into something else he was featured in. I settled in to watch the indie film Little Boxes.

Little Boxes is a fish-out-of-water story that I was initially surprised remained on the shelf so long. The longer the film went on, the less surprised I was by that; Little Boxes is a painfully awkward film. Between the off-putting tone and the sexualization of pre-teens, it is tough to guess who the market would be for Little Boxes - after the film was completed, it seemed like it would be a tough film to sell to a distributor.

Opening in New York City, Mack Burns and his wife Gina have their lives packed up for the move to Rome, Washington. The suburbs are a huge change for Gina, Mack and their son, Clark, who is the town's only young person of color. The move is instantly problematic for the family as all of their possessions are ten days to two weeks away and Mack's new writing job involves cooking and the house Gina's university moves the family into is lacking a working stovetop. Mack starts to smell mold almost instantly and he is put off by how the neighbors treat him initially.

While Gina meets her faculty colleagues and discovers they are a bunch of bored lushes, Clark meets two neighborhood girls and begins hanging out with them. Ambrosia sees Clark as a novelty, while her friend Julie treats Clark with interest in who he actually is. Ambrosia starts to get Clark into trouble and Gina and Mack start to feel stress over the huge changes in their lives.

Little Boxes is a mood piece and its obsession with mood and theme make it a tougher sell than it ought to have been. In trying to paint the suburbs as a different type of bad from the big city, Little Boxes inadvertently reduces all of its characters to about the same mental age. Clark experiences peer pressure from his new "friends" and he starts to act out. That makes sense given that he is an eleven year-old boy. But the fact that Gina and Mack have virtually identical arcs is tremendously disappointing. Mack, for example, shows no interest in doing drugs and when he is offered some, he initially refuses. It takes only one follow-up offer from a guy Mack does not particularly know or like before he is popping pills with him. Gina is a feminist who succumbs to pressure from her new peer group for no apparent reason other than the fact that her colleagues are women.

So, Little Boxes quickly becomes a fish-out-of-water story in which an interethnic couple with a blended-ethnicity child find themselves in a setting where they are very much alone. The move, however, pulls all of the characters apart in a way that feels very forced. Clark, Mack and Gina appear to have a very close relationship prior to the move. But, the moment they get to Rome and discover they are outsiders, Gina never seems to be around and does not take Mack's concerns about mold at all seriously and Mack starts ignoring Clark's needs to focus on a writing project he can barely do.

That said, while the characters are all fairly unlikable - almost every problem in Little Boxes could be solved by the two adult characters keeping up their level of dialogue and concern that was established at the beginning of the film - the acting is exceptionally good. Nelsan Ellis is remarkable in the subtlety he plays as Mack. Ellis manages to play empathetic and wry and his body language is so different from how he played Lafayette that even when he smiles, there is not a hint of his most well-established character.

Armani Jackson gives a good performance as Clark, a child very much in the process of becoming. Melanie Lynskey plays Gina's frustration exceptionally well. Lynskey and Ellis, however, exhibit very little on-screen chemistry, which makes it tougher to invest in Gina and Mack's relationship. For all of the problems with Little Boxes, acting is not one of them. The performers in Little Boxes are all good, even if the characters they play are awkward or unsettling to watch.

Ultimately, Little Boxes is a film that shows genre fans just how much we lost when Nelsan Ellis died; he was incredibly talented and it is unfortunate that he did not have a chance to develop a larger body of work.

For other works with Melanie Lynskey, please check out my reviews of:
Happy Christmas
The Perks Of Being A Wallflower
The Informant!
But I'm A Cheerleader
Ever After: A Cinderella Story


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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