July 16, 2014
Summer has finally arrived and I’m taking the change of pace to watch some of my all-time favorite movies. This week it was the 1998 dystopian fantasy “Pleasantville,” written and directed by Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit” 2003, “The Hunger Games” 2012).
The film opens with teenage siblings, David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) living remarkably different yet equally unsatisfying suburban lives with their divorced mother. David longs for the idyllic world of his favorite television show, a 1950s-style sitcom, “Pleasantville” – think “Leave It to Beaver.”
While arguing one evening over what to watch, David and Jennifer are magically transported, thanks to some help from a God-like TV repairman (Don Knotts) to the world of Pleasantville. Forced to take on the character rolls of Bud and Mary Sue, David and Jennifer quickly learn that they must closely follow the television episodes or risk unhinging the perfect black-and-white world of Pleasantville.
But we soon learn that all is not perfect in Pleasantville and that such idyllic conditions, where the boys basketball team has never lost a game, never missed a basket even, come with the high price of rigid stasis and the inability to live an examined life. David begins to realize that his longing for a perfect two-parent suburban life is not worth this sort of tradeoff.
As David and Jennifer slowly introduce their teenage counterparts to art, literature and music, the world of Pleasantville begins to change from black and white to color. Such forms of expression frighten and shock the residents of Pleasantville and serve as mirrors to reflect back their lives and values. A struggle of course ensues.
Like the perfect Chekhov lament, the film reaches a point where each character must decide what’s next. There is no opportunity to flinch, to look away or to return to black and white. And there is no road map. I was particularly fond of the storytelling when Bud’s and Mary Sue’s mother tries using black-and-white make-up to cover her scandalous color. This works for a while but she is exposed by her tears. Her emotion and desire, something heretofore not felt in Pleasantville, is the very thing that betrays her to the community.
David eventually returns to the present day. And while I don’t want to spoil the movie, viewers are rewarded in the end as every character becomes his or her own hero. But don’t be fooled into thinking there might be a perfect 1950s ending.
The unknown is scary. However, our willingness to find ways of embracing the future is paramount to living full and satisfying lives while serving the common good of our community.
I was reminded while enjoying my summertime movie fest, that, like the people of Pleasantville, we each have longings and fears. But also like those folks, we each have the capacity to be the hero of our own life, a leader in our family and community and to see the future without flinching.
What I love about this movie are the many complex themes about change, fear and the human condition. It asks us to be comfortable with “what is” without knowing “what’s next.” And that’s a tall order for us all.