David faces off against Goliath in yet another fact-based tale of an ordinary person taking on the powerful, this time over the issue of eminent domain, in “Little Pink House.” Courtney Moorehead Balaker’s film, adapted from a book by Jeff Benedict, dramatizes the events surrounding the Kelo vs. New London legal case that ended in a controversial 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2005. Like other films of its kind, it champions the little people over entrenched governmental and corporate interests, but in this case the outcome is decidedly ambiguous. The fight, as they say, goes on.
The narrative is centered on Susette Kelo (Catherine Keener), a divorced paramedic in economically-distressed New London, Connecticut, who in 1997 spies a run-down house for sale with a lovely waterfront view. She buys it, fixes it up, and paints it a bright shade of pink that catches the eye of Billy (Colin Cunningham), the scruffy owner of the local deli. She becomes friends with him, as well as with Tim (Callum Keith Rennie), a handyman who helps her spruce up the place and provides her with some used furniture, as well as gradually becoming her romantic interest.
But Susette’s paradise is rocked when, prodded by the state’s corrupt governor (Aaron Douglas as John Rowland, though the name is never mentioned), local politicians—save, it appears, for the mayor (Garry Chalk)—initiate an urban renewal program that aims at making acquisition of the waterfront property an attractive proposition for a big company—like Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, which is busy promoting its new wonder drug Viagra. The New London Development Corporation is put in the capable hands of Charlotte Wells (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a fictionalized stand-in for Connecticut College President Claire Gaudiani, and the initial step—passed quietly by the city council—involves using eminent domain to clear the area of private homes, including Kelo’s.
That sets up a battle between homeowners, like Kelo, who do not want to leave, and the town legal team, headed by a frazzled attorney named Bratten (Jerry Wasserman). Susette becomes the face of the opposition, which ultimately attracts the intervention of an activist law firm personified by idealistic young attorney Scott Bullock (Giacomo Baessato). A series of partial victories, reversals and setbacks—including the culmination of the relationship between Susette and Tim—follow, leading up to the Supreme Court decision of 2005, which finds the liberal and conservative wings of the bench dividing up in an unexpected way. The obligatory credits captions outline subsequent events.
Balaker’s film has its heart in the right place, but it fails to rise much beyond issue-oriented movie-of-the-week quality. The homeowners are presented simply as salt-of-the-earth types, grungy perhaps but courageous and steadfast in standing up for their rights, while the government and its representatives are portrayed as Machiavellian figures out to use every underhanded means to steal private property to turn it over to corporate interests (and pocket profits for themselves). In such circumstances it’s little wonder that Gaudiani’s name isn’t used while Kelo’s is, and that the inevitable real-life clips included at the end concentrate on Susette’s nobility in continuing her crusade for justice against the use of eminent domain in ways that harm the rights of property owners. As the court decision shows, however, the issue does have two sides, and by emphasizing emotion over argument, “Little Pink House” fails to do justice to both. It also chooses an easy target when it accentuates the irony of what actually happened to the property—and the governor—as a result of the controversy.
The film shows the effect of a very modest budget, not only in its generally ragged look (admittedly the locations are somewhat dilapidated, but Alexandre Lehmann’s drab camerawork does them no favors), but in its depiction of the Supreme Court sequence, set in what looks like a tiny, unimposing auditorium, and using close-ups to obscure the fact.
It does possess one great virtue, however: its cast. Tripplehorn is saddled with a thankless role—one can imagine Marcia Gay Harden sneering through the part—and Baessato offers only a generalized boyish enthusiasm. But Keener earns sympathy and admiration as a resilient woman whose hardscrabble life hasn’t dimmed her sense of simple justice, and as the men in her life both Rennie and Cunningham are grittily authentic. Wasserman manages to make the town lawyer a more layered figure that you might expect, though as the governor Douglas is simply one-note.
In the end “Little Pink House” raises what is actually an important legal issue, but does so in a highly formulaic fashion that might incite indignation, but blunts the possibility of reasoned discussion.