There is real suspense and pathos in this political drama, beneath the standard cinematography and pacing.
Little Pink House written and directed by Courtney Balaker. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA. (At tonight’s 7:20 p.m. screening at the Kendall Square Cinema, the subject of the film, Susette Kelo, will be a special guest for a Q & A.)
By Peg Aloi
In 1997, Susette Kelo, a paramedic living in New London, Connecticut, walks out on her husband and decides to begin a new life. She drives past a FOR SALE sign for a humble waterfront cottage with a bucolic view of the Connecticut River. She buys the place, fixes it up, and paints it the pink of sweetheart roses. She becomes friends with a local deli owner Billy (Colin Cunningham), who has a hard time selling sandwiches in a neighborhood that reeks from the residue of an abandoned sewage treatment facility. She also befriends an antique shop owner (who is oddly never named but is played by Calum Keith Rennie). The two become cozy in her little house by the water and Susette feels at peace.
As Susette’s new life takes root, a political drama begins to unfold. The Republican governor of the state (Battlestar Galactica’s Aaaron Douglas) decides he needs to make nice with his Democratic constituents. He hires a consultant: a firebrand fundraiser named Charlotte Wells (Jeanne Tripplehorn) who is also a college president. With the help of the governor’s assistants, they resurrect a local redevelopment firm that had lain fallow for over a decade. The NLDC, or New London Development Corporation, wants to partner with Pfizer Pharmaceuticals to build a waterfront facility to manufacture the little blue pills that are about to take the market by storm.
The governor commits a hefty budget to exploring the viability of this revitalization plan, which, if successful, will mean making a number of Fort Trumbull neighborhood residents vacate their property. Susette is at home one day (a television commercial promising a solution to erectile dysfunction plays in the background) when a realtor comes to the door, offering to buy her house for much more than she paid for it. Susette politely sends her away. A peppy montage follows, showing us various residents shaking hands and accepting sizable checks for their humble homes. When Susette learns that even her friend Billy is considering selling, she becomes angry.
It becomes clear that Susette will have to literally fight City Hall (and beyond) to stay in her home. Billy pivots and joins her, stealing printed emails from the NLDC. He brings them to a local journalist, who tells them that their only recourse with this information is request it from the NLDC, and accuse them of violating the Freedom of Information Act if they refuse (which they do). The bad publicity angers the governor and Wells doubles down on her efforts to charm the homeowners into doing what’s right for the community’s greater good.'Little Pink House' is a fairly textbook rendition of a true story adapted for film, complete with authentic locations and local extras.Click To Tweet
What follows is a decade-long battle centered on working class residents fighting for their right to stay in their homes. The legal linchpin centers on the concept of eminent domain: by government decree, residents may be forcibly removed from their homes if there is evidence of public benefit. Because Pfizer is a private corporation, application of the law in this case is unclear. A non-profit law firm (the Institute for Justice) is contacted by the mayor of New London (Garry Chalk) to fight for Susette and her neighbors. The lead lawyer (Giacoma Baesatto) seems young and green. But there is homegrown support. Soon after driving into town he’s stopped by a cop because of a minor infraction; the policeman tears up the ticket once he learns the guy is helping out the Fort Trumbull folks. The mayor and his wife let themselves be forcibly removed and then arrested during a protest against the demolition of a Fort Trumbull home. In a harrowing scene, Susette places herself in danger when a bulldozer operator keeps knocking down the house next door while she rushes to remove scattered debris from her porch. A temporary restraining order is filed, preventing any further demolition. Still, even when the Connecticut Supreme Court grants Susette and her neighbors the right to keep their homes, there’s an inkling that their struggle is not over.
Years pass, Susette becomes a nurse, personal tragedies occur, and the Fort Trumbull residents once again find themselves embattled. In support, the Institute for Justice mounts a massive media campaign; Susette finds herself attending a US Supreme Court hearing. The negative publicity generated by the case, covered in many major media outlets, becomes a national wake-up call: many states have taken proactive measures to prevent such tragedies happening in their own communities.
Little Pink House is a fairly textbook rendition of a true story adapted for film, complete with authentic locations and local extras. The cast is uniformly excellent. Catherine Keener (Get Out) as Susette Kelo doesn’t have the brashness or spark of, say, Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, or Sally Field as a union activist in Norma Rae. But her performance is subtle, gritty, and convincing; perfectly appropriate for a story that explores how gradually and insidiously corporate interests can overtake the lives of private citizens. Callum Keith Rennie is very appealing as the friend-turned-lover and partner, a man who urges Susette to fight for what’s right. Tripplehorn is letter perfect as the polished, ingratiating Wells, her facial expressions full of cold charm and fake compassion.
I enjoyed this film despite myself. In many ways it comes off as just another small town drama about an underdog turned unwilling warrior for the people. But there is real suspense and pathos here beneath the standard cinematography and pacing: this debut feature from filmmaker Courtney Balaker is something to be proud of. Here we have a film that could have been set in almost any small town in the Northeastern United States, where poverty, unemployment, and blight have become a way of life. All Susette really wanted, as she says, is to come home and relax; but she found herself grappling with a shadowy conspiracy, her rights as a homeowner threatened by forces of greed, intimidation, and aggression. Susette had no desire to lead a cause or be in the mainstream media spotlight, much less appear before the Supreme Court. Think what sort of nation we would have if every time a private citizen battled against corporate overreach the world heard his or her story. That may not have been easily done in 1999, but it sure as heck is now. Power to the people!
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College, and currently teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Cinemazine, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.