In “Dave” and “Big” screenwriter Gary Ross gave us characters whose innocent honesty and goodness revealed and transformed the adult world. Now, as both screenwriter and director of “Pleasantville,” he has created teen-aged twins who are transported into an idyllic black and white 1950’s television sitcom where everything is perpetually sunny and cheerful, married couples sleep in twin beds, the basketball team never loses, and messy complications simply don’t exist. Tobey Maguire (David) and Reese Witherspoon (Jennifer) are well aware of the messy complications of the modern world. David has retreated into reruns of “Pleasantville,” a television show that makes “Andy of Mayberry” and “Father Knows Best” look like hard-hitting docudramas. And Jennifer is something of a self-described “slut.” When a mysterious TV repairman played by “Andy of Mayberry’s” Don Knotts gives them a magic remote control, David and Jennifer find themselves transformed into Pleasantville’s Bud and Mary Sue. As the twins interact with Pleasantville’s black and white world, they cannot help revealing its limits and ultimately transforming it. “Mary Sue” mischeviously introduces the concept of sex to her high school classmates, and then, more sensitively, to her Pleasantville mother (Joan Allen). “Bud” tells them about a world where the roads go on to other places, where the weather is not always sunny and mild, where people can decide to do things differently than they have before. As the characters open themselves up to change, they and their surroundings begin to bloom into color, in one of the most magical visual effects ever put onto film.
But some residents of Pleasantville are threatened and terrified by the changes. “No colored” signs appear in store windows. New rules are imposed. When the twins’ Pleasantville father (William H. Macy) finds no one there to hear his “Honey, I’m home!” he does not know what to do. He wants his wife to go back to black and white.
At first, Jennifer thinks that it is sex that turns the black and white characters into color. But when she stays “pasty,” she realizes that the colors reveal something more subtle and meaningful — the willingness to challenge the accepted and opening oneself up to honest reflection about one’s own feelings and longings.
High schoolers may appreciate the way that the twins, at first retreating in different ways from the problems of the modern world, find that the rewards of the examined life make it ultimately worthwhile. Topics for discussion include the movie’s parallels to Nazi Germany (book burning) and American Jim Crow laws (“No colored” signs), and the challenges of independent thinking. NOTE: parents should know that the movie contains fairly explicit references to masturbation (and a non-explicit depiction) and to teen and adulterous sex.