‘Pleasantville’s Themes of Repression Remain Potent 20 Years Later

     October 23, 2018


Not every film is made to stand the test of time, especially those commenting on specific socio-political events or struggles. A film can become dated for a myriad of reasons, some of which are out of the filmmaker’s control. So with the 20th anniversary of writer/director Gary Ross’ film Pleasantville already here—a movie I love, but haven’t seen in quite some time—I was curious to revisit the comedy/drama to see how well it holds up.

While the basic premise finds a pair of 90s teenagers being transported into the black-and-white world of a Leave It to Beaver-like 1950s TV show where the weather is always 72 degrees and the basketball team has never missed a shot, Pleasantville is highly metaphorical in nature. The theme is one of repression—both external and internal—and thanks in large part to the film’s timeless quality and avoidance of specific references, Pleasantville remains an incredibly potent allegory two decades later. Especially for its intended audience of teenagers.


Image via New Line Cinema

The admittedly very 90s setup of Pleasantville establishes siblings David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) as teenagers who in their own ways are trapped. David is so cripplingly introverted that the only comfort he seems to find is in disappearing into a marathon of the classic TV series Pleasantville. Jennifer, meanwhile, is living a life completely dominated by social status.

When David and Jennifer are transported to Pleasantville, David quickly embraces the “perfect” nature of the town. As suggested by the title, everything is in the service of pleasantness. There’s no knowledge of art, sex, profanity, or even geography outside Pleasantville because, as the town insists, there’s simply no need. But Jennifer starts rocking the boat when she has sex with her show-within-a-movie character’s boyfriend, Skip (Paul Walker). Unsurprisingly, Skip becomes obsessed with this new act and the town’s Lovers Lane (which previously consisted of hand-holding at its most intense), has now become a haven for teenagers to fool around.

While sex is the first major disruption for the town, the film never pretends like this act in and of itself is enough to break the spell of repression. While Jennifer is busy knocking boots with the school hottie (and remains in black and white), David is making waves of his own—unbeknownst to him. David explains to the owner of the local soda fountain, Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels) that the routine at the shop doesn’t always have to be exactly the same day-in and day-out. This lights a fire in Mr. Johnson, who’s really an artist at heart. This newfound improvisation sets off a spark of creativity that blossoms and eventually manifests in Mr. Johnson painting a nude portrait of Betty (Joan Allen) on the store window, causing an intense uproar in the town.


Image via New Line Cinema

Slowly but surely, both people and objects in Pleasantville begin turning color. Now, when I first saw this film as a pre-teen, it took me a spell to figure out the thematic importance behind the film’s use of color. But when I did manage to suss out its true meaning, it was as if the whole film had been unlocked.

Indeed, adults and keen-eyed viewers may find this allegory a bit simple, but it’s clear from the onset that the intended audience for Pleasantville is youth. And what an important lesson to be learned as such an impressionable age. Not only is Ross’ use of an idyllic 1950s suburb as the embodiment of repression spot-on, but the complexity with which the color is rolled out is a delight.

Those who break free from repression are able to turn into color, while those still imprisoned—either by the establishment or themselves—remain black and white. You’ll recall that Betty, a lonely housewife who dutifully cares for her husband and children, turns color when she finally does something for herself. Mr. Johnson turns color when he allows his artistic mind to roam free. And even Big Bob (J.T. Walsh), the mayor and authoritarian figure of the town, turns color when he allows his true anger to show instead of repressing it behind a façade of pleasantness.

The film certainly dabbles in socio-political repression, with strong parallels to the civil rights movement all the way down to “No Coloreds” signs when this “disease” of color starts spreading. But it doesn’t really get too specific in this regard, and admittedly there are literally no people of color in the entire film. This lack of actual diversity stands out when viewing the film through the prism of 2018, but it’s also clear through the filmmaking techniques that Ross is after a more general idea of repression, with an authoritarian bent. Indeed, most of the shots of Big Bob are framed low and canted, calling to mind archival footage of ruthless dictators. It’s no wonder Ross would go on to direct the film adaptation of The Hunger Games.


Image via New Line Cinema

But trying to read Pleasantville as a film about one specific kind of repression misses the point. David and Jennifer both turn into color for very different reasons—David when he finally stands up for Betty, thus risking his close-held anonymity and introversion, and Jennifer when she stops caring what other people think and follows her own desires.

The film’s message is delivered almost verbatim in its closing scenes, when David returns to his present day life and consoles his single mother, telling her there’s no “right” way to live your life. There’s no ideal. There is no Pleasantville. It’s up to us to find comfort in ourselves, even if that means going against the grain of what’s “normal.” Repression takes many forms and can come both from outside forces and ourselves. And while 2018’s politically charged climate makes breaking free seem like an even tougher prospect, if we simply give up and accept the box that we’re put in, we’re closing ourselves off to a colorful world of possibility.

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