Emma is a little girl in a stable, secure home. But her parents are often too distracted to give her their full attention, and she has moments when she feels unseen and unimportant, making her feel lonely.
Then, one day, she discovers a homeless woman living in her backyard, having cleverly evaded discovery for some time. Emma invites her inside for a play date, one that opens up a friendship for her -- but also a larger understanding of the world beyond her own home.
Written and directed by Paige Morrow Kimball, this short children's drama is told through the eyes and emotions of its young protagonist, and its plot events are shaped and related to the mode of fables and fairy tales. Strange, out-of-the-ordinary characters and happenings are accepted as matter-of-fact reality; everyday things suddenly loom with magical, sometimes ominous import. The world itself looms with possibility and enchantment.
The film creates this atmosphere of everyday magic through considerable attention to detail. While the narrative's visual sense falls into social realism as it captures Celeste's experience of homelessness, there are still bright pops of color in the frame, from the ad on the public bench she sleeps on to the colorful cakes and pastries she looks at longingly through a window. When Emma enters the story, the film's visuals amp up the color and fanciful detail. But though her world is charmingly whimsical and cheerful, it's an empty one for Emma especially with her parents preoccupied elsewhere.
That world fills with warmth and joy, though, when Emma discovers Celeste hiding out in a shed in her backyard. She invited Celeste inside, and Celeste proves to be an ideal playmate, up for anything and attentive, though Emma likely doesn't realize the bath and food are a huge relief for Celeste as a homeless person. Their bond develops quickly, as do the events of the plot.
Actor Terry Walters as Celeste enters into Emma´s world with both the weather-worn wariness of a homeless person, but also a warmth and kindness that allows her to connect with Emma played by young performer Isabella Spencer with a lovely guilelessness and innocence. But that innocence is ruptured when Celeste is inevitably discovered. As reality sets in, Emma begins to understand Celeste's full situation, opening up her understanding of the wider world in a poignant, heart-tugging way.
Fables and fairytales often operate on the metaphorical level with a certain moral and emotional clarity, and "Play Date" is no different. Homelessness is not a distant, faraway social issue, and as Emma discovers, it is often right there in our proverbial backyards, though our busyness and own struggles might prevent us from looking at it directly. But when we do, we can't un-see it. As Emma rides in the car past the village of tents that often forms the "skid row" of many cities, she takes in the sight and understands it for what it is, and also what it means for someone to live in it.