Similar in content to innumerable TV movies about suburban parents wrestling with their teenage kids’ drug use, The People Next Door is elevated by world-class cinematography and a smart script that shines an ironic spotlight on “acceptable” substance abuse by grown-ups. Part of the reason the piece goes down so smoothly is that it actually was a TV movie in an earlier incarnation; writer J.P. Miller and director David Greene made The People Next Door as a small-screen drama in 1968 before delivering the big-screen version two years later.
The story explores the lives of Arthur Mason (Eli Wallach) and his wife Gerrie (Julie Harris), an all-American couple raising high-school student Maxie (Deborah Winters) and her older brother, recent high-school graduate Artie (Stephen McHattie). Artie is a longhaired rock musician involved with the counterculture, so he drives his father crazy. Meanwhile, Maxie can do no wrong in her parents’ eyes—until the night she wigs out on acid. Once Maxie sobers up, she reveals that she’s not only using drugs but also sleeping around.
What’s more, she hates her parents for being phonies: Arthur is an adulterer, while Gerrie ignores reality by pretending everything is copacetic. The Masons try to coax Maxie back to their idea of a normal life, but an overdose renders her catatonic, forcing the Masons to institutionalize their “sweet little girl.” Miller’s unsubtle theme about troubles visiting even the best families is leavened by a secondary focus on Arthur’s drinking and Gerrie’s smoking, so the thought-provoking idea that everybody wants some form of escape from life comes through loud and clear.
The acting in The People Next Door is effective if not particularly revelatory. Wallach does a fine job illustrating a man who is paradoxically strong-willed and terrified of confrontation. Harris is vulnerable essaying someone who has hid so long beneath a plastic shell that she barely knows herself anymore. And Winters, reprising her performance from the TV version, plays against her girl-next-door prettiness by unleashing a volatile mix of narcissism and rebelliousness. However, Hal Holbrook nearly steals the show as the Masons’ neighbor; his final scene is chilling for its mixture of anger and anguish. (Cloris Leachman is interesting but underused as the wife of Holbrook’s character.)
The People Next Door is strongest when it dramatizes the way drugs exacerbate familial tension, and the movie wobbles when it tries to address larger issues like student protests. Overall, however, the movie offers a rational examination of subject matter that is more often depicted hysterically. In terms of tethering the storyline to a recognizable version of reality, the movie’s greatest virtue is the cinematography by Gordon Willis (The Godfather). Not only does Willis cloak scenes in his signature deep shadows, he finds sly ways of easing actors into dramatic compositions that poignantly accentuate the emotional distance between characters.
The People Next Door: GROOVY