Based on Jeff Benedict’s book by the same name, Courtney Balaker’s “Little Pink House” tells the story of Susette Kelo (Catherine Keener), a middle-aged paramedic, twice divorced, who has finally settled down in small-town Connecticut. And, of course, she’s painted her house pink.
However, as a part of the governor’s plan to economically revive the City of New London, Kelo’s historic Fort Trumbull neighborhood is singled-out as the location for a Pfizer Corporation expansion. Susette Kelo stands her ground, refusing to let the city government take her little pink house from her. She emerges as the face of a movement rallying to protect the property rights of working-class Americans.
“Little Pink House” is a battle cry for the Everywoman, a film that champions both visually and narratively the spectacular story of an unspectacular woman. Catherine Keener’s superb performance makes up for the film’s flaws. In one scene, a nervous Kelo sits across the table from a man in a suit as he prepares her for a media interview, reminding her to forget her nerves, to tell her truth, and asks her if she isn’t world’s greatest expert on her story. She hesitates, but at last nods. He looks her in the eye and says: “Then tell your story.”
This is what “Little Pink House” is all about. Balaker invites us into Kelo’s average little world and makes human what could so easily become a story about laws rather than the people they affect. While “Little Pink House” is objectively a story about American property rights, it is really a story about Americans. Kelo and her neighbors are simple, working class people who have bought into, and achieved, their American dreams. They’re not rich, they’re not flashy, but they are homeowners in a poor, waterfront neighborhood. With their property comes a sense of peace and dignity and prosperity.
When this peace is threatened, Kelo decides that she must speak up in order to protect not just her own home, but the rights of other working-class Americans who are bullied and kept down by people in power. She stands up for individual rights, for freedom, and for the very communities upon which America is built. In championing the voice of an underappreciated, unrepresented middle-aged woman and her struggle for justice, Balaker’s “Little Pink House” distinguishes itself from the never-ending mass of politically charged media.
Keener’s performance as Kelo lures us into a posture of sympathy and frustration on Kelo’s behalf. We are captivated by her grit and her slow realization that if she doesn’t fight for what she knows to be right, then no one will. It’s in her nervousness, in her reluctance, that we connect with her. It’s in her eyes, the way she looks out at the water beyond her backyard, the way she looks at her boyfriend (Callum Keith Rennie) as they sit at the kitchen table, the way her neighbors gather at her front porch and defer to her quiet strength.
“Little Pink House” capitalizes upon our drive to root for an underdog. Indeed, Keener portrays Kelo as just a working-class woman who wants some peace and quiet, and yet, she emerges as a tenacious hero. Kelo’s strong sense of justice and her strength of character propel her onto the national stage. She’s not rich, she’s not male, she’s just a small-town paramedic with a home she wants to protect, and yet, she emerges as the face of a historic Supreme Court case.
While Keener delivers a superb performance, the same cannot be said for Jeanne Tripplehorn and Aaron Douglas. As Charlotte Wells and the Governor of Connecticut respectively, they overact through the entire film. The film itself oscillates between scenes of domestic life, discussions of shady government plots, and displays of corporate glamour. As a result, it struggles to settle into a particular genre. It has the pace of a biopic, yet it flirts with the pomp of a legal drama.
Despite its flaws, “Little Pink House” tells a fascinating story. In an era preoccupied with government drama and charged with social justice movements, “Little Pink House” is breath of fresh air in its genre of politically-focused media. There’s a sincerity and honesty in the simplicity of Balaker’s film that makes palpable the stakes of Kelo’s struggle. In a day and age where the very foundation of what it means to be American seems to be in jeopardy, Balaker’s film glorifies the power that a group of average Americans can have when they stand together to fight for what they know to be right.
Contact Hayley Hodson at hhodson ‘at’ stanford.edu.