F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 23, 2012)

23 03 2012

Before Gary Ross was making us hunger for “The Hunger Games,” he was making thoughtful dramas with insights into society and the individual (which makes him an excellent fit to be at the helm of Suzanne Collins’ hit trilogy). He wrote Tom Hanks’ “Big” and directed a real crowd-pleasing hit with “Pleasantville,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” I was expecting it to be a gentle satire of 1950s culture and television, but it wound up surprising me and insightfully looking deeper at the narrow-minded times both then and now.

The high-concept dramedy follows the adventures of 1990s teenage siblings David and Jennifer, played respectively by Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon pre-superstardom, after being magically transported through the television into the world of the series Pleasantville. It’s your typical ’50s utopian small town where the sun always shines, the kids all innocently gather at the diner, mom is happy in the kitchen, and dad is bringing home the bacon. The world is as simple as the color scheme it’s shot in: black and white.

But as the Beatniks and Betty Friedan would later show us, the American Dream of the 1950s was not without a dark underside. People were still unhappy; they just didn’t have the channels to express it, so they repressed it. David slowly begins to introduce color into Pleasantville, showing people that they can see and feel as they were meant to feel.

Change is never easy, though, and it is never met without opposition. The town begins to divide on what they perceive as the shifting moral values being advocated by David and his colorful crew. Ross assembles a fine ensemble cast, including Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, and J.T. Walsh to vivify the conflict. While we relish the performances and the story during the movie, we are left to linger with the challenging thematic probing that asks us to apply the color litmus test to our own world.

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