Film review: Little Pink House scores a direct hit on Kelo -- and on hearts

“I feel happy here,” Susette Kelo says, “I feel like I’m home.” Even those who don’t already know the Kelo saga will sense the foreshadowing in that statement in the beginning of Little Pink House. The film uses indie sensibilities combined with big-studio production values to show the personal side of one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in decades. Not only does it tell a compelling tale, it transforms a heartbreaking and infuriating outcome into both a call to action and an occasion for some uncomfortable introspection.

Little Pink House works on two different levels — political statement and entertainment. The film wants audiences to know what happened to Susette Kelo and her neighbors in the rush by New London, Connecticut, to convince Pfizer to build a new campus in their city, and to condemn it, which isn’t hard to do. Facing tough economic conditions in the city, the state set up a development company to boost jobs and thereby curry favor from the working class voters in New London. In order to get the pharmaceutical firm to build there, they had to declare the area blighted to force New London residents off of the land that Pfizer needed.

Little Pink House doesn’t offer too many shades of gray about the nature of those moves, especially in the context of corruption in the governor’s office. (The character “Governor” is unnamed, but clearly refers to John Rowland, convicted in 2004 of fraud after nine years in office.) Filmmakers Courtney and Ted Balaker make no bones about taking Susette Kelo’s side and that of the Institute for Justice, which represented Kelo and her neighbors pro bono. However, it doesn’t offer everything in stark black and white either, and while the governor comes across as corrupt, everyone else on the antagonist side of the ledger merely comes across as either convinced of their own righteousness or too focused on winning at all costs.

As entertainment, Little Pink House rises above what could have been a Lifetime channel drama on the strength of its production values, especially its casting. The two women who play lead roles in this film undergo a kind of casting swap. Catherine Keener, who has played a number of hard-as-nails roles in her career, offers a sweetness and vulnerability as Susette Kelo, whose chief aim is to be left alone in the home she restored and thought she owned. Jeanne Tripplehorn plays the succeed-at-all-costs antagonist Charlotte Wells, whose ambition blinds her to both the humanity of the people she claims to be helping and the ultimate futility of the deal itself. Callum Keith Rennie plays Kelo’s husband, whose health creates even more pressure on her, and Colin Cunningham is terrific as Billy Von Winkle, the local deli owner.

At the heart of this legal and emotional minefield, though, is not so much the central court issue of eminent domain. It is how we see people in our community. The Supreme Court got Kelo wrong and hung Susette out to dry, but it wouldn’t have come to that if New London and Connecticut hadn’t tried to solve “blight” by ejecting the people who lived in it. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, as the saying goes, it passes through New London and Susette’s river-view lot. The question is, of course, just how good the intentions actually are. The most effective part of the film takes place in a town meeting where Susette exposes this hypocrisy by demanding that Charlotte, who just had bragged about making New London “hip,” tell them how they would fit in with her vision of New London.

Little Pink House forces us all to answer that question in some way. When our vision of a better world doesn’t include those who need that improvement most, it’s no longer social justice. It’s social ambition and greed in one form or another, at the expense of people who just want to live their own lives.

On the Hot Air scale, Little Pink House gets a 5:

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

Unfortunately, this will only open in a few selected cities. The film’s website offers a list of showings and opportunities to set up screenings in your community. Apart from a few instances of rough language, there’s nothing that would prevent teenagers from watching this, and appreciating the injustice of the Kelo case.