Athena Film Festival opens with an agitprop parable on eminent domain
"I just want to find peace," Catherine Keener implores throughout Little Pink House, in Courtney Balaker's debut feature, which had its New York debut in front of a crowd of some hundred very cold people up at Barnard's Athena Film Festival yesterday. An agitprop parable, Balaker tasked herself with the politics of eminent domain, namely that of a Supreme Court case, Kelo vs. City of New London (2005). Keener plays its working class hero: Susette Kelo, is owner of the movie's titular pink building, the target of a business development being arranged by a tangle of seedy political figures represented by Charlotte Wells (Jeanne Tripplehorn) who is deep in cahoots with Pfizer, the global pharmaceutical multinational that had just developed Viagra. At some point they split lobster tail. Balaker's screenplay was adapted from Jeff Benedict's Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage, a work of popular journalism, but eminent domain is a striking choice for subject. Concerning the rights of businesses to use the government to force people to leave land they target for development, the Supreme Court's decision in 2005 remains one of the least popular in recent memory and is at the heart of disputes that surround projects like the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline that our current President, an avid fan of eminent domain, recently announced he's pushing forward. It's like gentrification's evil twin.
This may sound like the stuff for a diligent documentarian, but that would have stolen us another brilliantly low-key demonstration of pathos by the still-singular Catherine Keener, who just starred in Jordan Peele's directorial debut, the suburban horrorshow Get Out, which gets a wide release later this month. But if Peele keeps to the popular image of suburbia as a site for regressive collections of wealth and privilege, Balaker puts Keener to use in depicting an entirely different brand of uncool. It is Wells, evil in a pantsuit, who repeats, constantly, that she will turn the movie's decrepit neighborhood of New London, somewhere in Connecticut that isn't a suburb of New York, to someplace "hip." Tripplehorn performs evil with aplomb, delivering it in the same voice you would news about pets being taken up to the farm.
Drawn in rich naturalistic light constantly glittering from every window frames, Balaker's New London reveals itself to be close cousin to another vaguely British city on the Eastern Seaboard, the titular town of Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea, up for a whole pile of Oscars later this month. Kelo is born of the same stripe as Casey Affleck's Lee Chandler: they are people who simply don't want to be bothered, by the law or by you. She is a symbol of ordinariness, played with unkept hair and hospital robes (she's a nurse at a local hospital's ER).
The movie's titular symbol for property rights is a savvy one: emphasizing its smallness makes those who want to tear it down goliaths by default. Balaker has some fun with the imagery from Benedict's book; Keener's dower working class garb is occasionally spotted with touches of pink or a bright red or blue. We watch Keeler paint it every inch of the house, domesticate into an establishment of her personality. When bulldozers show up and demolish the house next door, the sensation is almost akin to watching a bloodbath. The hypnotically controlled shots recall nothing so much as Eisenstein at his best, no low compliment for a debut filmmaker.
Balaker's script had made the Athena List back in 2015, an annual slate the festival keeps of women-led scripts that have not been made into features and is the first from the list, which started in 2014, to have been made into a feature. Consequently, it was chosen as the festival's opener, a choice keenly in touch with the post-election political divide. Balaker doesn't split lines by Democrat or Republican: the state's governor is a Republican but Wells embodies the style of cosmopolitan liberalism so much the ire of conservatives: she occasionally answers questions in French, clearly out of touch. But the thorniness of the issue is even more apparent than Balaker's movie can convey: the dissenting opinion in the Kelo case, which was decided against Kelo's right to her house, was written by arch-conservative Clarence Thomas. Weird bedfellows, surely.
"The horrors of cronyism," Balaker explained in a Q&A after the screening, was the subject of the movie's criticism. She was joined by Kelo, herself, who appears briefly at the end of the movie, standing in the empty lot that had been her little pink house. She didn't want to be hero and still doesn't. But we still need her.