Visiting Pleasantville 20 Years Later

Pleasantville was released back in 1998. That is 20 years ago for those of you who are bad at math. A quick summary for those who have forgotten, the movie focuses on two very different teenage twins, the hopeless geek who is a super-fan of Pleasantville, the fictional 1950’s sitcom about the idyllic family, the Parkers, named David and the too-cool-for-school and self-centered Jennifer. After a fight over the remote renders it useless a mysterious TV Repairman, who wasn’t called, is let into the house (stranger danger anyone?!). He engages in a brief conversation about the show Pleasantville with David, the repairman gives them a replacement remote which transports them into the TV, and they find themselves inside the black and white show, and their influence starts unraveling the Parkers’ perfect world.

Once inside the show, David soaks up the perfect family and town atmosphere and plays along while begging Jennifer to do the same. But once Jennifer finds out that the attractive captain of the basketball team, played by Paul Walker in his first big theatrical release, wants to ask her out, she takes it upon herself to provide him with a night he will never forget. From that moment on the town starts to change. Flowers, cars, and clothes come to life with color that has never been seen before. After this, the plot goes exactly where you would think it would go. More kids turn color, and the “important” men of the town get together to try to stop it. Conflict arises, marriages are tested, friendships are brought to the breaking point, and brother and sister are at odds about what is right, and their place and culpability in this mess are questioned. SPOILER ALERT: In the end, everyone learns to embrace change and finds their place in this new world. It’s a beautiful story that has been told a million times over, and it is done very well.

With a predictable storyline and an end that you can see coming from a mile away, it is important to have characters who you can invest in. In this instance, the cast in Pleasantville shines. A young Toby Maguire plays David with a sweet innocence that you actually believe, and you can already see the star quality in a young Reese Witherspoon who takes the character Jennifer from a teen with an attitude problem to a sweet girl who finds the potential she has always had. William H Macy gives a solid performance as the head of the Parker family, George Parker, and has incredible chemistry with Joan Allen who is perfect as the repressed housewife, Betty Parker. But anyone who can pull off a self-discovery masturbation scene in a bathtub with such dignity is alright in my book. But the real star in this movie is diner owner, Bill, played by Jeff Daniels. Daniels gives an incredible and genuine performance as David’s boss and family friend. His excitement is palpable when this new world of color opens up to him, and all he wants to do is paint and show off this fantastic new world that he has discovered to a town that isn’t ready for it.

While watching this movie 20 years ago, my 11-year-old self-was too innocent to see the more in-depth storylines and the profound question that this movie poses: is there such thing as a perfect family? Now, as a slightly more cynical 31-year-old who has 20 more years of life experience I rewatch this movie and can quickly conclude that no matter what period, no matter what family, no matter what morals and principles you follow, there can never perfection. Depressing? Maybe. The biggest thing that stuck out to me was that the idyllic fictional town of Pleasantville was juxtaposed with the grit and grime of southern California in the 1990’s. Looking back now, people around my age are becoming more and more nostalgic for the “happy 90’s” with the smiley faces everywhere and sweet, wholesome family shows like Full House and Family Matters on the TV. Just take a look at Buzzfeed’s 90’s kid quizzes! And the remakes and reboots coming out (Fuller House and the like). It pains me to think of how horrible it is going to have to get for us to look back on the 2010’s and say “Wow, I miss those days!”