Sunday, 28 September 2014

Pleasantville (1998)

It's the ineffably sweet moments of Pleasantville and the truth that it contains that ultimately wins us over, rather than enjoyment of the film as a whole. That's not to say that writer/director Gary Ross' modern day parable isn't a success, it's just that on occasion it is the tenderness and surprisingly strong social  message/commentary that makes it more than the sum of its parts.

Opening in late 90s America (which to some extent now looks far cornier and dated than the fantastical 50s scenes do!) warring  teen siblings Tobey Maguire and Reece Witherspoon squabble over the TV remote, only to find themselves zapped into the black and white world of Maguire's favourite TV rerun; a quaint little sitcom of key American traditional values and never ending sunshine called Pleasantville.

It is these values that archetypal 90s teen girl Witherspoon starts to deconstruct with a zeal that is part missionary and part mischief. It sees the teens of Pleasantville awake from their slumber and find, for the first time in their one dimensional lives, a world beyond their picket fence and mom's homemade apple pie existence - a world with colour, blossoming out from the cracks in the monochrome in a slow but sure fashion. Progress writ large! 

Eventually even Maguire, the show's biggest fan also starts to see that all is not well with the cosy world of Pleasantville he enjoyed and fantasised about as a viewer and equally helps to introduce the community to a reality that he has perhaps taken for granted.

Perhaps the most touching 'conversions' are those of Jeff Daniels' simple soul of a diner owner and Joan Allen as the sitcom families mother. Their scene together, finding a love of art and the colour in life is one of the most tender and beautifully played in the whole film and it's one that has so much to say - the notion of being true to oneself and never apologising for or hiding what you really are. 

Its that kind of depth within the film that is truly unique, with its philosophy almost creeping slowly up on us throughout the duration. One of the most striking moments is when Maguire shields his newfound, newly technicolour girlfriend from the local monochrome bullies; they sneer at her for being 'coloured', loading that word in exactly the same way that smalltown 50s hicks would use towards black Americans - the side of life which 50s TV did not depict. 

Ultimately the lesson from Pleasantville is to appreciate the nostalgia for the good old days but don't be too quick to consign the qualities of life we enjoy from the moment we live in now. Things may look better and more innocent and amiable back then, but that's because we see them through rose tinted (or maybe just black and white?) glasses. Pleasantville teaches us to embrace the here and now in a life affirming manner, because we are lucky.

It's not a perfect film, but it's one which contains a great message.


  1. I love Pleasantville and watching it a few years ago I took away so much more from it than when I watched it as a teenager. It's film I'm going to have to get on DVD.

    1. Absolutely, I think its the kind of film whose message means more when you've got a more mature head on your shoulders I guess