movie jems: pleasantville

Resident film buff Jem Mackay gives us the first of a weekly series of classic film reviews


As pessimistic young people we seem to always have an idealized view of the past, when the music was better, the clothes were cooler and graduates actually had job prospects.  A quick glance at the Youtube comments on the latest Bieber track usually reveals hundreds of ‘What happened to music 🙁 LMAO’ posts.

Pleasantville (1998),  deals with this idea head on, de-romanticizing our view of 1950s America. Rather than glorifying rock ‘n’ roll, leather jackets, Halterneck dresses and all the cherry cokes, it instead exposes how unnervingly conservative life was.

First however, you’ve got to forgive the ridiculous premise. Siblings Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon sucked out of 1990s America into the fictional 1950s sitcom world of ‘Pleasantville’, where everything is just so damned pleasant as well as black and white.

They become the cardboard cut outs Bud and Mary-Sue Parker, forced to conform to the norms of the time. However, they soon start rebelling and send ripples through the town, bringing with them the counterculture of our times. Introducing ideas of sex, free choice and gender equality.

The previously robotic townsfolk begin to explore their desires and emotions, following the lead of Diner owner Mr. Johnson (played brilliantly by the criminally underrated Jeff Daniels) who starts to wonder what happens if he doesn’t just pour cherry cokes and flip burgers.

But these changes aren’t welcomed by all in Pleasantville, and it’s through these new conflicts in a previously catatonic town that the film’s themes are explored, such as the perils of repression, need for self expression and the ability one has to change society.

Most striking about Pleasantville is its utilization of special colour effects – the best since the Wizard Of Oz. Although beginning in complete black and white; various symbolic objects on screen become technicolor reflecting the changes in society. Screens of both colour schemes mixing are stand-out moments in the movie, such as a monochrome school girl blowing aggressively pink bubblegum in an otherwise colourless world.


Along with the imagery, the soundtrack fully immerses you into the 1950s world, with all the hallmark songs one would expect, such as Be Bop A Lula by Gene Vincent. The score is also very well constructed; with transition music hitting all the cheesy tones that one would expect from a sitcom of the era.

With echoes of the Truman Show throughout, it’s satisfying to see previously constrained characters becoming emotional beings, rejecting their previous conformities.

Written and directed by Glen Ross (who directed Hunger Games) Pleasantville manages to make its premise work to its advantage, with one forgetting we just saw two characters sucked into a TV, instead warming to the changes we see on screen. It manages to skillfully tread the thin line between comedy and poignancy, and leaves you feeling thoroughly satisfied by the end.