One of the standout films at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival was “Little Boxes,” the latest picture from director Rob Meyer (“A Birder’s Guide to Everything“) and screenwriter Annie Howell (“Small, Beautifully Moving Parts“). Tackling the story of a young family from New York City relocating to a small town in Washington, Howell’s script draws on her family’s own experiences to paint a compelling and sympathetic portrait of what it’s like to be a mixed-race family in a decidedly non-diverse new city.
To offer additional insight into the film, Howell shared an exclusive new clip as well as her own thoughts with us about the experience of relocating your family from all that’s familiar and the way anyone, regardless of upbringing, can sometimes slip into the most harmful of stereotypes.
In April of 2009 it became official: my husband and I, along with our five-year-old son, would be leaving our beloved lives in New York City for jobs in a tiny Ohio town.
I had known for a long time that our future might unfold this way. My husband is an academic, and landing a tenure track job at a “high research activity” school was more important than how we felt about our cozy lives on 16th Street and 6th Avenue. I’m a filmmaker and academic, and when Ohio University hired me as well, it was too good to pass up — but we were heartbroken.
I had known we would probably leave, as academics must follow the job. In fact, I had already written a screenplay, imagining how life might be for characters in our situation. This weekend, that film (finally) opens – Little Boxes, the story of how a New York family adjusts to a predominantly white town. The family is interracial, with a black father (played by Nelsan Ellis, best known as Lafayette on “True Blood”), a white mother (Melanie Lynskey) and a biracial son (Armani Jackson). Just like my family.
What I couldn’t have known in 2009 is how different the world would be in 2017. I see those changes in the face of our new administration and all the vitriol it has unleashed, but I’m also reminded how much things have simply always been this way.
What is “this way”? Mostly how humans want to categorize one another and will do so fiercely in order to shape complexities into more comfortably palatable bits. As a white woman who lives with one toe in a black world, what I see is white people continually using blackness as it fits in to their understanding of the moment, which almost always benefits a worldview where race is there to serve: to titillate, humanize, politicize or provide a target for an assumed white norm. I am not exempt from this practice.
I shudder now to think how I represented my early romance with my husband to my then exclusively white friends: with too much enthusiasm. I probably depicted his views one too many times with an authority that was not mine. And I have more than once given myself a pass on “doing something” simply because of my familial configuration.
In our movie, the New York City family encounters treatment from white people that ranges from fetishizing to aggression. A new neighbor encountered on the main drag calls out that he’ll see Mack, the father, “back in the hood!” Tween girls express delight that “we’re finally getting a black kid” and others comment on how “interesting” the family is – “I hope you like it here…” says another neighbor with a look of concern. No surprise — these behaviors map to what I’ve encountered in real life, but not just in a small predominantly white town. In very progressive-fancy parts of New York City, I’ve watched as family members were asked if they “needed help” or how they became so well spoken.
But living in a small predominantly white town also expanded my understanding of the bias I was bringing from the city, and this too helped my script over the years. (In this case, the long process of getting an independent film made may have actually helped.) I was appalled when my first babysitter showed up with her grandson in tow – “I didn’t pay for this scenario” was my first horrible and mercenary thought, until I figured out that she really didn’t have a choice, would never hire someone to watch her grandson just because she was watching other children, and it actually helped to have more kids around. I found myself reacting viscerally to a different display of struggle than New York offered: I was angry that my school district observed the first day of hunting season as a day off until I learned that several families need the provisions. I was incensed when the aging school buses that could not handle the sometimes icy, hilly roads prompted the district to cancel school for everyone due to the fact that a handful of families were hard to reach. After time, I better understood the complexity of this problem.
The dramatic twist in how my own narrative meets the movie’s life story is when we finally secured a director, cast and financing, I was too busy moving back to New York City to spend time on the set. After six (good) years in Ohio, job offers from CUNY felt like once-in-a-lifetime tickets to return, and we missed city life. I’ve been back in my “new old town” for a year and a half, noticing more than ever the New York bias against the middle of the country. Our two boys are enrolled in public schools where the number black and brown faces are about equal to the white ones, and for that, I’m grateful. But of course we are also in a whole new situation, where hate crimes in New York City are up 55% since last year at this time. We will see what unfolds. I can’t know how my two children’s experiences with racism and discrimination would have played out in small town Ohio, but I do have a deeper understanding of race, class and perception due to my own experiences and tough reflections. Our film intends to inspire the same in other people.
Here’s the full plot synopsis for Howell’s film:
It’s the summer before 6th grade, and Clark is the new biracial kid in a very white town. Discovering that to be cool he needs to act ‘more black’, he fumbles to meet expectations. Meanwhile, his urban intellectual parents Mack and Gina try to adjust to small-town living. Accustomed to life in New York, the tight-knit family is ill-prepared for the drastically different set of obstacles that their new community presents. They soon find themselves struggling to understand themselves and each other in this new context.
“Little Boxes” stars Melanie Lynskey, Nelsan Ellis, Armani Jackson, and Janeane Garofalo and is now available in select theaters and On Demand.