Director : Todd Field
Screenplay : Todd Field & Tom Perrotta (based on the novel by Tom Perrotta)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Kate Winslet (Sarah Pierce), Patrick Wilson (Brad Adamson), Jennifer Connelly (Kathy Adamson), Gregg Edelman (Richard Pierce), Sadie Goldstein (Lucy Pierce), Ty Simpkins (Aaron Adamson), Noah Emmerich (Larry Hedges), Jackie Earle Haley (Ronnie J. McGorvey), Phyllis Somerville (May McGorvey), Helen Carey (Jean), Catherine Wolf (Marjorie), Mary B. McCann (Mary Ann), Trini Alvarado (Theresa), Marsha Dietlein (Cheryl)
Todd Field’s Little Children tackles the suburban malaise of privileged New Englanders with a bold, if sometimes uneasy, mix of melodrama, black comedy, tragedy, and didacticism. The tired, yet infinitely mineable nature of the topic has already produced scores of Oscar-darling film over the previous decades, from Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980), to Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997), to Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999), and Field’s challenge is to find something new (or at least memorable) to say about the topic.
Like so much of the film itself, the title is darkly ironic. While there is a great deal of concern for young children in the literal sense (in the background, you can almost hear Rev. Lovejoy’s wife from The Simpsons crying out, “Would somebody please think of the children!”), the title Little Children does not refer to them, but rather to their emotionally stunted parents, all of whom are reaching for happiness, but in all the wrong places.
The film adheres closely to Leo Tolstoy’s famous admonition that “All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” There are three unhappy families at the center of Little Children, with many others hovering around the edges (some are acutely aware of their unhappiness, others are blithely unaware of it).
Sarah (Kate Winslet) is a former English Lit grad student who traded in heady intellectualism for suburban life with Richard (Gregg Edelman), an older marketing executive whose job and obsession with Internet porn make him all but unavailable. Brad (Patrick Wilson) is a former college athlete turned stay-at-home dad, not so much because he wants to be, but because he has been unable to pass the bar exam in two tries. His wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) is a successful documentary filmmaker who is constantly pushing him to be as successful as she is. And then there is Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), a recently paroled sex offender (he exposed himself to a minor) who has moved in with his elderly mother (Phyllis Somerville) and become the scorn of the otherwise respectable neighborhood. In essence, Ronnie becomes the target of everyone’s repressed unhappiness, although he is hardly a simplistic victim.
Sarah and Brad meet at the local park, where they both feel like outsiders. The park is otherwise populated by chatty, hyper-organized stay-at-home moms, whose brutally caricatured portrayal is the first clue that Field isn’t going for straight drama. Sarah and Brad recognize something in each other, and soon they are spending their days together at the public pool, which not surprisingly leads to an affair in which they are able to indulge all the passion and heat they are missing at home. The affair is a fantasy, something Sarah realizes late in the film when she tells Brad, “This isn’t real,” but it doesn’t stop them from pursuing it anyway.
At its heart, Little Children is about failed pursuits, whether it be Sarah and Brad’s affair, or a retired cop’s (Noah Emmerich) compulsive crusade to terrorize Ronnie into leaving the neighborhood, or Ronnie’s mother’s need for her son to lead a normal life, even if he did “one bad thing.” Each character is deluding him- or herself, with the possible exception of Ronnie (there’s that irony again), who dismisses his mother’s encouragement by stating blankly “I have a psycho-sexual disorder.” This doesn’t stop him from going out on a date, however, in a scene that starts with the promise of salvation and ends with humiliation and threats.
It is not surprising that Field and his coscreenwriter Tom Perrotta (from whose novel the film was adapted) directly reference Madame Bovary, whose flawed, yet understandable protagonist provides the model for all of Little Children’s emotionally challenged and unhappy adults. This is particularly true for Sarah, who offers an eloquent defense of the title character at a women’s book club attended by a holier-than-thou housewife (Mary B. McCann) who cannot see Bovary (and, by extension, Sarah) as anything more than “a slut.” Sarah finds something beautiful and challenging in Bovary’s quest for happiness, however wrongheaded her actions may be, and we are clearly meant to feel the same for her. This type of overt literary illusion is typical of Little Children as a whole, reflecting both its intelligence and its overeager desire to spell out everything.
While Little Children is replete with powerful moments and strong performances (particularly by erstwhile Bad News Bear Jackie Earle Hayley), it never quite adds up. Part of the problem may be the exhaustion of its subject matter (do we really need another story about how dysfunction lurks behind perfectly manicured white picket fences?), and part of it may be due to the portentous, overbearing, and overly literary narration (by an uncredited Will Lyman, who has narrated scores of documentaries). While Lyman’s narration is sometimes used with scathing wit and quirky humor (such as when it briefly turns a flag football game into an overdramatized reel from NFL Films), it more often than not tells us what we already see or what we should be able to see without it, reminding us of how much better this material probably works on the page than the screen.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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