Little ChildrenReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/20/06 00:09:05
As you might have guessed from the title, the upscale Massachusetts suburb of “Little Children” is indeed teeming with little children. They hang out at the local swimming pool, the football field and the playgrounds until all hours. They don’t want to study for their tests and prefer to spend that time cutting out from the library to go hang out with the local skate punks. When a weird new person with an unsavory past moves to town, they close ranks against him and allow the town bully to harass him mercilessly for no reason except to exert his own power against the powerless. When they don’t get their way, they whine and pout, they threaten to run away from home or they call their mommies and get them to take of their problems for them. Eventually, many of them wind up in some form of trouble or another but as much as they want to complain that it is because life is unfair and no one understands them, the trouble is almost entirely their fault.The irony is that the little children referred to in the title are not actual kids or even teenagers. No, these are adults in their 30's and beyond who may be physically mature but whose behavior towards themselves and other suggests that they are anything but from an emotional standpoint. These people were the center of the acclaimed satirical novel from Tom Perrotta (who also wrote “Election,” the inspiration for the great 1999 Alexander Payne film) and now filmmaker Todd Field has given us a brilliant screen adaptation that, like the book, is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking in the way that it depicts the bad behavior of a group of people in a darkly humorous manner and strangely empathic manner that humanizes them even as they are doing the most unlikable things imaginable to each other. The result is he kind of lacerating domestic comedy of ill manners that most people convinced themselves “American Beauty” was until they took a second look at that one.
The film opens on a playground as a group of proper mothers keep a wary eye on their children while observing all the attendant rituals involving juice boxes and crackers. The only one who seems out of place is Sarah (Kate Winslet), a former English Lit major who has somehow drifted into becoming a housewife and mother despite having any real desire to be either. This particular days sees the long-awaited return to the park of the one the mothers have dubbed “The Prom King,” a hunky house-husband named Brad (Patrick Wilson) who is taking care of his son while his wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), is working as a documentary filmmaker and he supposedly studies for the bar exam that he has already blown on two previous occasions. On a dare to get his phone number, Sarah strikes up a conversation with Brad and they immediately sense in each other a kindred spirit. Before long, they are sharing play dates at the local pool with their kids and not long after that, they are tucking the kids in for a nap and heading up to the attic for clandestine play dates of their own.
At the same time that this tale of lust, heartbreak and deceit is unfolding, the neighborhood is thrown into a frenzy by the arrival of Ronnie James McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), a middle-aged man who has just been released from prison for indecently exposing himself to a minor and has moved back in with his doting mother (Phyllis Somerville) in an effort to restart his life. Although he has theoretically been rehabilitated and his mother is convinced that he is all better and ready to start dating, Ronnie is self-aware enough to recognize that the demons that drove him before are still there and while he tries to reign them in, he still finds himself compelled to do stupid things like show up at the crowded town pool even though he knows he is supposed to stay away from such places. Not helping matters is Larry (Noah Emmerich), a former cop who has made it his duty in life to harass Ronnie on an around-the-clock basis under the guise of wanting to protect the children of the neighborhood from harm–this is especially ironic when we discover a dark event from his own past in which he spectacularly failed to do just that. His high-pressure tactics (including ever-present leaflets and the formation of a so-called citizens committee) only serve to exacerbate an already tense situation and lead to even more tragedy.
Although some critics have charged that the Ronnie character is an unnecessary distraction the romantic melodrama involving Sarah, Brad and Kathy, this subplot is actually a key element to “Little Children” and I can’t begin to imagine the film without it. It would have been so easy for Field and Perrotta to depict Ronnie as the kind of innocent and wounded soul who did something questionable years ago (we never get the full details of what happened) and is still being persecuted for it despite having fully recovered. Instead, they have chosen to portray him in a far more nuanced and realistic manner. Unlike all the other characters in the film, as Field has pointed out in interviews, Ronnie is the only one who is completely candid with himself about who he is and what he does. All of the others are lying to themselves to one degree or another–Sarah is convinced that everything will be better if she can run away with Brad, Brad is convinced that everything will be okay if he can run away from responsibility, Larry is convinced that he will once again be a hero if he can make Ronnie run away and his mom is convinced that everything will be better if he starts dating–but Ronnie knows that he has done bad things in the past that he regrets and knows that he still has a problem. At the same time, Field takes care to show us that he in fact isn’t all right–in one of the most startling sequences, he goes out on an initially awkward blind date with a woman with her own emotional problems (Jane Adams) and just when it appears that he may have turned a corner in true Hollywood manner, his inner demons kick in to destroy whatever tentative human connection he might have made. By painting him as a real and flawed person, the film subtly gets us to empathize with someone that we might have ordinarily demonized without hesitation and because of this, the final scenes, in which a despairing Ronnie violently lashes out at his greatest enemy, carry an emotional wallop enough to stun most viewers with their power.
This empathy extends to all of the other characters as well. From the first moment that we see Sarah, for example, we get the sense that she is not the most likable person. She is not particularly good with her child and strikes a vaguely condescending attitude towards virtually everyone she meets due to her sense of superiority over them despite the fact that she shares more of their flaws than she is willing to admit. She berates her husband (Gregg Edelman) when she catches him red-handed with the Internet porn that has become his obsession but she herself becomes equally obsessed with her affair with Brad, a man who she falls for because she thinks he really understands her when in reality, he is just as lost and confused as she is. Yet again, while it would have been simple enough to make her a one-note caricature like the Annette Bening character in “American Beauty,” the care has been taken with Sarah’s character so that while we may not approve of what she does (especially towards the end), we can certainly understand it.
This is only Todd Field’s second film as a director–the first was the acclaimed 2001 melodrama “In the Bedroom”–and based on the strength of the two titles, it is clear that he is one of the most intriguing of the new wave of American filmmakers. “Little Children” shares some thematic similarities with “In the Bedroom”–it too deals with family tensions, infidelity and the pain that can occur when someone tries to take justice into their own hands–but this isn’t simply a matter of someone spinning his wheels with his sophomore effort; he expands on those themes in new and interesting ways and as good as “In the Bedroom” was, “Little Children” is a more deeply felt and more effective work. As a co-screenwriter with Perrotta, he has condensed the novel into a two-hour screenplay that keeps all the central points of the book without losing too much in the process and even manages to find a way of keeping in Perrotta’s authorial voice through the clever use of a ironic narrator (Will Lyman–you may not know the name but you’ll surely recognize his voice) who makes the film at times feel like a “Frontline” investigation of contemporary American suburban life. As a director, he handles tricky material with grace and sensitivity (the erotic moments between Winslet and Wilson are especially striking because they are the rare sex scenes in an American movie that are about more than merely giving viewers an eyeful) and as a former actor, he knows how to inspire his gifted cast to new heights–Wilson and Connelly hit their parts head-on, one-time child star Jackie Earle Haley makes the comeback of the year with his stirring portrayal of Ronnie (ably assisted by Phyllis Somerville as his mother) and Kate Winslet, an actress who has already turned in more great performances than anyone else in her age group (or any age group for that matter) turns in the best work of her career with her searing turn here.In talking about “Little Children,” some of the early reviews have compared the film and Todd Field’s approach to the work of the late, great Stanley Kubrick–like the films of that master, it contains a visual style that prefers long, unbroken shots framed dead-center, a cool and ironically detached tone (most notably in the narration that seems straight out of “Barry Lyndon”) and a fascination with people going through the motions of empty rituals. (To further these claims, they point out that Field was an actor in Kubrick’s last film, “Eyes Wide Shut”–he was the piano-playing pal of Tom Cruise who sent him off on his kinky journey–and that longtime Kubrick associate Leon Vitali is now his producing partner.) For the most part, I think that people are reading a little too much into these comparisons–sometimes a long, unbroken shot is just a long, unbroken shot, as Freud never quite got around to saying–but there is one similarity between the two that is undeniable. They are both individuals whose work demonstrates a masterful control over every aspect of the filmmaking process in a manner not often seen these days. In the case of Kubrick, this led to one of the greatest and most significant careers in the history of American film and if “Little Children” is any indication, Todd Field could be heading down that very same path.
|© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.|