How "Pleasantville" Beautifully Captured The Nature of Change

When Pleasantville hit theaters 15 years ago, it had a profound impact on my pre-adolescent mind. And the lessons learned are just as valuable today.

1. There is beauty in the details you overlook.

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Living in a big city, it’s hard to appreciate the natural beauty that surrounds you. Pleasantville simplifies things by transplanting the city kids to an idyllic small town, and brightening the world bit by bit in gradual pops of color. It’s a lot easier to remember to stop and smell the roses when they’re bright red against a grayscale bush.

2. Art is a form of protest.

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Outside of nature, there’s manmade art, which can be equally easy to ignore when you’re a kid. Pleasantville captures the transgressive power of art: It’s a stunning form of protest, an ability to address and subvert societal norms without violence. And the results can be gorgeous, like the mural painted by Mr. Johnson and David toward the end of the film.

3. Reading is essential.

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Reading is another form of protest, which is radical information to anyone who previously regarded it solely as homework. Books offer knowledge, but also the ability to escape past your surroundings. The boundaries of Pleasantville disappear when the teenagers start opening their minds, and that happens when the books fill in with words.

4. Everything has more meaning when shared with someone else.

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Ah, young love. While Jennifer brings sex to Pleasantville, David finds love. Real love, that is — not just baking cookies for the star player on the basketball team. But it was always under the surface, like the forbidden longing between Mr. Johnson and Betty. Just like that, color floods the scene. A life without love feels a little meaningless — or, you know, black and white.

5. Sex is exciting but dangerous.

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With love comes sex, something of particular interest to a pre-adolescent watching Pleasantville. We get both sides of the equation in Betty’s bathtub masturbation scene: Her first experience with female pleasure is transformative, bringing color into her world. But there’s a scary power to it, too, as seen by the tree outside catching fire. The danger here is palpable.

6. It’s important to be open to new experiences.

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You can’t let fear hold you back. Those raised with a religious education might flinch when Margaret offers David the apple, but it’s not about temptation — it’s about knowledge. And there’s no shame in opening your eyes and expanding your horizons. For Jennifer, it’s not sex that brings her color back: It’s staying in and reading instead.

7. Standing out will encourage those around you to do the same.

It’s tempting to conform, because that’s the easier option. But David and Jennifer both end up changing Pleasantville for good, rather than letting the town’s restrictions hold them back. Following the examples of the outsiders, the townspeople learn to be independent, thoughtful, and complicated — they’re granted dimensions they never would have found otherwise. It’s thrilling to watch.

8. Sometimes you have to cover up to make those around you comfortable.

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At the same time, there’s a risk to standing out. Pleasantville doesn’t shy away from the realities of being different, as the people with color are shunned by the conservative town. It’s an allegory for race relations — the “No Coloreds” signs spell that out — but it speaks to something larger, the fear that so many of us felt as kids that we weren’t normal, and we had to hide that.

9. Change is scary.

It is terrifying, actually. But it’s also so, so important. Watching Pleasantville at 12 years old, there’s something comforting about the simple black-and-white world David and Jennifer get transported to. There’s also something frightening about the ways they change it. And yet, you know that it has to happen: Pleasantville can’t stay innocent forever, and neither can the people in it.

10. The most important thing is independence.

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Risks be damned, if Pleasantville teaches you one lesson above all others it’s to be true to yourself. By the end, everyone has expressed his or her honest emotions, and they are better — and more human — because of it. The color that once was scary goes on to paint the entire town, proving that everyone has the capacity to be his or her own person with unique passions, desires, and needs.

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