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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Tribeca Review: LITTLE BOXES is One of the Rare Films About a Blerd



Finally, we get a film about a "blerd" (a black nerd) that's not a peripheral, one-dimensional character or a sidekick. In LITTLE BOXES, the blerd (Armani Jackson, Grey's Anatomy) is in fact the protagonist, a self-aware young boy about to enter sixth grade whose life is turned upside down when his interracial parents (Melanie Lynskey and Nelsan Ellis) uproot him from the lively and diverse New York City to the quiet and predominantly white Rome, Washington. It's also the summer that he loses himself.

Most of us have a story of being young and impressionable, quick to buckle at the mere suggestion from a peer about how you should dress, talk, or act. It's no different for the bespectacled Clark (Jackson), whose natural affinity toward fantasy novels and graphic t-shirts is sidelined when he meets and befriends Ambrosia and Julia (Oona Lawrence and Miranda McKeon) who are quick to take him under their wing as their "best black friend." They blindly assume that he listens to rap music and talks differently, so they immediately start twerking in front of him. And that's as awkward for Clark as it is to watch as an audience member.

But feeling the pressure to fit in, he alters his lingo, style, and interests to be "more black" for his new white friends. Which pleases them, but confounds his parents who barely recognize him anymore. He makes the difficult to decision to abandon who he is, for who he must be now. And for a while, that seems to be the easier choice.

While Clark is the main focus on the film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, it's no party for his parents Gina and Mack either. Needless to say, they stick out like a sore thumb. Either the locals treat them like they live in a fishbowl. Or, they turn their noses up at them. Or, they desperately want to understand them (which implies that they're somehow unique beings who should be studied and not befriended).  It all adds up to a major culture shock highlighted by the the block association, liquid lunches with colleagues, and suburban frenemies, Amid new challenges, the couple is forced to navigate their relationship in a place that fails to see them as a team but as two very different individuals separated by race, class, and education.

LITTLE BOXES, inspired by screenwriter Annie J. Howell's own experiences in an interracial marriage with a biracial son, defies the standard coming-of-age story led by white (usually male) characters that is considered "universal." Rather, the film, like its lead character, dares to be uniquely authentic. And that's what makes it so bold. Jackson, Lynskey and Ellis all deliver effortless performances that further illuminate an essential narrative.

Rating: B+ (***1/2 out of *****)

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