This film starts very simply with an idea, what would happen if you got to be a part of your own escapist fantasy? From there the film becomes a crash course in some of the key philosophical and social issues of our time. The first section could easily be the beginning of a lighthearted teen comedy. Two teenagers (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon), caught in a slightly supernatural series of events, end up in a TV show and have to blunder through their typical sibling rivalry to find their way back to normality. However the first of many inversions is about to take place as we realise that this ‘picture perfect’ life is only as deep as the screen. An insightful comment on the power of television to mesmerise and placate the consumer. Maguire’s character believes so wholeheartedly in the perfection on the screen that he neglects his real life and broken family situation.
As time goes by with the siblings stuck in Pleasantville, this black and white soap opera starts to change before their eyes. Bit by bit, colour appears in the lives of the people of Pleasantville. A remarkable technical feat as the film fluently introduces colour and takes it away, all the while still allowing the black and white world to interact with the colourful one. Between the two of them, David (Maguire) and Jennifer (Witherspoon), literally bring colour to people’s lives as they break through social norms and self-imposed rules. Pleasantville stops being a neutral place, the predictable saccharine scripts fall through. With the good, however, comes the bad. If we are to see every ‘colored’ person (a daring piece of scripting on the part of Gary Ross) as having removed and rebelled against what has held them back we must see the non-coloured people as repressed to the point of fearing freedom. They have created a totalitarian state for themselves, founded on unspoken laws. This is portrayed cinematographically and allegorically. Those in black and white automatically appear to a modern viewer as if they are older, a group of people lost in the visual past. We see an Edenic coloured scene with a bright red apple. It is a coloured woman offering it to a non-coloured man. We see books being burnt and shopfronts destroyed. The town leaders are filmed from below, their power over the citizens in undefinable but undeniable. Segregation laws are put in place and exercised, an impromptu government bans art and music. These embedded ideas of right and wrong resonate with the viewer, yes they are obvious but it is the combination of all of them which lends them such power. How quickly a perceived utopia can become the dystopia we fear and avoid.
However this is also a story of personal acceptance. Each of the main characters experiences a very different personal journey. Emphasis is placed upon each person’s experience of life as some overcome sexual repression, others emotional repression and some intellectual repression. However each character learns that despite what they have been told and led to believe they each have far more beauty and potential inside themselves than they had previously allowed. In the end all the artifice has been stripped away. The world is no longer perfect but there is at last true beauty, variety and emotional expression.