A tale of American white-picket suburbia, disturbia perhaps, from director Todd Field, opening out a touch from In the Bedroom, whose focus was all there in the title. Our heroine, a Madame Bovary figure called Sarah (Kate Winslet), scandalises the harpies at the school gate by striking up a relationship with the only hot male on the school run (Patrick Wilson). Back home Sarah’s husband (Gregg Edelman) is big on internet porn, something Sarah doesn’t know till she catches him masturbating with a pair of panties on his face. But he’s small on most other things and so we sympathise with Sarah as she seeks solace in the arms of the hunky Brad. Brad, meanwhile, is also seeking comfort, away from judgment, because he’s screwed up his bar exams and his wife (Jennifer Connelly) is more successful than he is, though no less attractive. It’s a bitch eat dog sort of world.
Pretty orderly lifestyles with discontent roiling underneath is a standard trope of the high-minded American film, whether it’s Robert Altman (Short Cuts), David Lynch (Blue Velvet) or Todd Solondz (Happiness). It’s the territory Field is working in too, possibly too self-consciously. Emblematic of the bad stuff is a paedophile (Jackie Earle Haley) newly released to the world, against whom the suburbanites are figuratively pulling the wagons into a circle and preparing to let loose all they’ve got, in a passive-aggressive don’t-mess-my-decor kind of way. In fact, as Field repeatedly shows us in long, leisurely panoramas taken in by the cool camera of Antonio Calvache, defence is the big pre-occupation, whether it’s against unsavoury predators or any loss in status, real or implied, with children a pivot – the proof of the suburban family’s moral perfection being its reproduction intact.
Field is having a visual stab at the Great American Novel with this adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s story – who in Election turned over a stone in a high school to also find wriggly things lurking – and there’s always the suspicion that maybe the entire thing should have stayed as a novel, undeniably well done though Little Children is. Winslet offers another of her versions of the reined in neurotic she always seems to be at awards ceremonies and Patrick Wilson, never one to be accused of having range, gets away with it as the largely symbolic hunkaspunk. Meanwhile, symptomatic of what’s not working is Jennifer Connelly’s barely there bleeding-heart documentarian and the regular reappearance of a flat, low, menacing voiceover, maybe half a nod to Desperate Housewives, of which this is some sort of distant relative, half a nod to the fact that Field is having trouble getting his story out any other way. As for the wonderfully unsavoury Jackie Earle Haley as the paedophile, he’s caviar rather than the main course, though the scene where he arrives at the swimming pool and slowly lowers himself into the shallow end with the children, that on its own makes the film worth stopping by for.
© Steve Morrissey 2006