From left, Nelsan Ellis, Armani Jackson, and Melanie Lynskey in Little Boxes (Tribeca Film Festival)

A mixed-race family from Brooklyn moves to a small, mostly white, town in Washington State so the mother can take a tenure-track professorship at a liberal arts college. Think of all the social commentary brought up in Get Out, only this is something you can watch with your kids.

The title, Little Boxes, is presumably after the Malvina Reynolds song of the same name that served as the theme song for the television series Weeds. Just like the song, this film is wryly critical of suburban life, where strip malls and McMansions reign supreme. The major conflict here: Gina (Melanie Lynskey) is white, and from a place not unlike this town, while her husband and young son (True Blood’s Nelsan Ellis and newcomer Armani Jackson) have never lived outside of New York City.

The screenplay is based on screenwriter Annie J. Howell’s experience of having a mixed-race family and trying to rough it in the disconnected jungle that is Middle America. Directed by Rob Meyer, who also made the sensitive coming-of-ager A Birder’s Guide to Everything, this film smartly addresses the issue of race—and class—as it is dealt with by the “two Americas.”

There are certain advantages to small town life, such as Clark getting his own, massive room and “bathrooms everywhere” in the new, two-story house. But after the quick setup, the family members find their own personal set of disadvantages.

Mack and Clark run into the most problems. Their neighbors, who all seem to be well-meaning, make accidental missteps. Never are these outright racist or hateful. Instead, there are several situations in which white people go out of their way to make Mack or Clark feel comfortable, and thereby actually making them feel more uncomfortable. Every time Mack walks down the street with his earphones on, trying to zone out, a white neighbor runs over like he can’t wait to put his foot in his mouth. These are tense situations, but they also make for good comedy centered on the awkwardness of getting to know someone new. Gina did pick a good neighborhood, after all.

Gina herself runs into problems transitioning into her new college. Namely being the newbie, she is immediately swept into a clique of professors (led by Janeane Garofalo) who hold their “department meetings” at a local margarita joint. Gina moved to Washington with the intention of joining the cerebral world of academia only to find out her colleagues are a bunch of catty drunks.

Clark’s story becomes the more dominant, and the most emotionally loaded. He strikes up a friendship with two girls in the neighborhood, Ambrosia and Julie (Oona Laurence and Miranda McKeon). Just like his dad, Clark has to figure out how to deal with the wrongly worded remarks of his peers. (He overhears Ambrosia at one point say, “We needed a black kid in the neighborhood.”) Both preteens are very into hip-hop, and ask Clark to teach them how to dance better, in particular, how to twerk. Only, Clark isn’t really into hip-hop. Instead of informing the girls that he has different tastes in music, he decides to play along with their misconception, just so he can make friends, and because he has a crush on Ambrosia.

Out of all the encounters with their neighbors, it is Ambrosia and Julie who make the worst assumptions. They get a pass because they are only children, but it’s probably the most important lesson the movie conveys: people often don’t grasp that people don’t rigidly fit into a box. Because the family’s new neighbors don’t have daily encounters with black people, their impressions of blacks are shaped by the media. Likewise, when Gina and Mack come to a confrontation with Ambrosia’s mother (Christine Taylor), they face the possibility that their preconceived notions about her may also be wrong. The screenplay is evenhanded in revealing everyone’s flaws.

There need to be more films like Little Boxes, and people should be watching them with their kids.

Directed by Rob Meyer.
Written by Annie J. Howell
Released by Gunpowder &Sky
USA. 84 min. Not rated
With Melanie Lynskey, Nelsan Ellis, Armani Jackson, Christine Taylor, Oona Laurence, Miranda McKeon, and Janeane Garofalo