A contemporary David and Goliath story benefits from some added human scale in “Little Pink House,” the fact-based account of a Connecticut woman’s fight to stop a corporate development project from forcing her out of her home. Catherine Keener is a characteristically earthy presence as Susette Kelo, a New London nurse quietly defying plans for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to build a new headquarters in her blue-collar corner of town. Keener’s performance keeps the film grounded even as blunt scenes of the opposing camp’s machinations flirt with soap opera villainy.
Kelo is at a personal crossroads when she stumbles across a realtor’s sign for the humble property of the title back in 1997. Recently separated, she longs for peace in her life, and instantly falls in love with the cutely shabby cottage and its spectacular water view. She gets to work sprucing and painting (you know which pastel), finishing the place’s makeover just in time for a chirpy development rep to come knocking with an unsolicited purchase offer. The amount is a corporate budget-busting $68k, for anyone wondering — but hey, they’ve got a whole neighborhood to raze, plus a nearby sewage plant to somehow deodorize.
The audience had already been briefed on the plan by scenes of the governor (Aaron Douglas) holding hush-hush confabs in dimly lit meeting spots, and recruiting local power broker Charlotte Wells (Jeanne Tripplehorn) to run point. (Conspicuously if unintentionally so, Douglas’s politico is never mentioned by name, while Tripplehorn’s character is apparently a fictionalized version of Connecticut College’s then-president.) These are narrative requisites, of course, but does the delivery have to be so mustache-twirlingly obvious? It’s Big Pharma — viewer antipathy probably doesn’t need much coaxing. The eminent-domain bulldozers kinda cover it, too.
First-time writer-director Courtney Moorehead Balaker does more skillful work showing the resolve that Keener’s unassuming heroine has to muster as the case finally lands in US Supreme Court. Nervous talks with her crusading Institute for Justice attorney (Giacomo Baessato) feel honest. So do moments of happiness and heartbreak with Kelo’s crustily charming boyfriend (Callum Keith Rennie), understated reminders that life goes on even as it’s threatening to fall apart.
Balaker also flashes an instinct for wit that you wish she’d follow more. A cutaway to one of Pfizer’s early Viagra ads is perfectly timed, and a non-sequitur shot of Kelo’s fight-the-power neighbor (Colin Cunningham) dumpster-diving for incriminating documents is a quirky laugh. Careful, guy — what you turn up might stink.
LITTLE PINK HOUSE
Written and directed by Courtney Moorehead Balaker, based on the book by Jeff Benedict. Starring Catherine Keener, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Callum Keith Rennie. Kendall Square. 100 minutes. Unrated.