Kate Winslet in Little Children

Little Children


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


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4 thoughts on “Little Children”

  1. Out of all the "Oscar Bait" films I've seen this year, this film beats them all. Little Children is an unbelievable masterpiece about what it means to grow up. This idea is brilliantly portrayed through characters – while categorized as "adults" – have yet to outgrow certain adolescent stages.

    Brad is a man who never got the chance to experience the spotlight in his youth, and now he desperately craves attention, acknowledgment, or admiration in any form.

    Sarah is a woman who never learned how to grow past her own selfishness. She is angry at her daughter for needing attention when all Sarah wants is some time to herself.

    Larry is a man who still harbors bully-like tendencies, and desperately just wants to fit in and be one of the guys. This is seen through his treatment of Ronnie – the pedophile who was just released from prison and returned to the neighborhood.

    Ronnie is the dangerous man. The man who cannot connect with people his own age and seeks sexual gratification with children or with people who – like him – cannot fit into the adult world.

    This isn't an action moving – it's an interaction movie. The scenes between characters have you nailed to your seat and deeply invested. The characters interact within their small community, and their actions with each other build into a climatic explosion that forces them all to face truths about themselves, and – finally – accept their responsibilities as mothers, husbands, fathers, and humans. This accepting is what separates little children from adults, immature from mature.

    The tale is moving, sad, hilarious, dark, breathtaking, thought-provoking and many other creative adjectives. It forces you to reevaluate your idea of yourself and your thoughts on others. It forces you to see people you would normally loath and dismiss in a differently light. This a movie you will come out of changed. If you only see one film a higher, I cannot recommend this one more.

  2. Director Todd Field satirizes western society and exposes our fundamental flaw as a society. We are a country of self-righteous hypocrites who band together to crush evil wherever it may be found but overlook our own weaknesses.

    The story on one level is exceedingly banal: it shifts from scene to scene exposing the triviality of day to day life. Yet there is that haunting sound of an approaching train. Are we witnessing a train wreck? The brilliant use of a narrator lulls us into the belief that this is just a children's story and nothing bad will happen. Yet our eyes are glued to the screen as we await the crash.

    Jackie Earle Haley as Ronnie exposes everything that is wrong with our modern world and everything that is right about character acting. He gives a stand out performance definitely worthy of Oscar consideration. The character represents an unknown evil in our community, one that must be sought out and destroyed. His character at times is sympathetic, even lovable and other other times hideous and menacing.

    But who is more detestable? Is it Ronnie or is it those infinitely boring (but beautiful) adulterers, Sarah (Kate Winslet) or Brad (Patrick Wilson)? Is it up to us to judge? If we do, are we not being like the suburban community that is the metaphor for our society? In that way, Director Todd Fields includes us in the movie whether we know it or not. This is a wonderful (train) ride that will keep us talking for days. It is one of this year's great movies.

  3. Can there be such a thing as a feel-good movie about marital infidelity and suburban ennui? If so, then I believe this haunting, powerful and superb new movie from Todd Field may be it.

    A feel-good movie was not in the least what I was expecting from this, based on the trailers and on Field's prior film, the astringent and depressing "In the Bedroom." And it's not like I left the theatre feeling the need to break into song. But unlike other films about the stultifying atmosphere of suburban America, and the prisons so many people seem to make out of their domestic worlds, "Little Children" ends with a distinct feeling of hope and optimism. In other domestic dramas, the characters are frequently unlikable, and they appear to drift through their worlds allowing things to happen to them without taking any responsibility for themselves. In "Little Children," Field does not present us with a handful of caustic stereotypes, but rather with a cast of actors who create warm but flawed human beings. These characters don't drift through life. They have things they care about, and they want and feel that they deserve some of the small happinesses that all human beings have a right to. But they also screw up, make bad decisions, act irrationally. What saves them, and the movie, is that in the end they all wake up, realize they're chasing dreams, and decide to make something of the lives they have rather than the lives they think they want.

    I thought this was a hopeful message, and one that carries with it a tremendous impact in this post-9/11 culture, when the safety nets on which we've built our existences have been ripped out from under us and we're left trying to make sense of a scary world. This film, in its closing moments, states outright that there's no time like now to begin taking control of our own worlds and making of them what we want. The best weapon we can wield against an uncertain future are our children, who can learn from our mistakes and make something new rather than simply repeat an endless cycle.

    As for the acting…..Kate Winslet shines as Sarah, the suburban mom who doesn't fit in and embarks upon a reckless affair to fill a void in her days. Her performance is one of those small triumphs of acting, in which Winslet builds a living, breathing human being from the ground up through a series of subtle and thoughtful choices. Patrick Wilson, such a limp noodle in the screen version of "The Phantom of the Opera," is pitch perfect as Brad, the stud who attracts Sarah's eye. And the other actors take full advantage of their smaller roles: Jennifer Connelly as Brad's loving but distracted wife; Jackie Earle Haley as the film's most tragic figure, Noah Emmerich as an ex-cop who takes homeland security into his own hands; and Phyllis Somerville, who has a couple of beautifully heart-breaking moments as the mom of an outcast.

    The screenplay is thematically elaborate. There's hardly an element of one character's storyline that doesn't find a parallel in the storyline of another. The theme of parenting is of course central, but beyond simply focusing on the responsibilities parents owe their children, the film goes deeper and examines how parents' behavior affects their children and the extent to which parents can change the world for good or bad through what they hand down to the children who inherit it.

    A bracing, fantastic film.

    Grade: A+

  4. Todd Field's Little Children's screenplay was written in collaboration with Tom Perrotta, on whose eponymous novel it's based. Perrotta wrote Election's, Bad Haircut's, and Joe College's funny, ironic screenplays before this. But though mildly satirical at times in its vision of middle-class white infidelity, this second film (at last) from the director of the powerful 2000 In the Bedroom, with its themes out of Cheever or Updike, also moves toward the solemn and the shocking.

    One big reason for that is a second plot about a just-released sex offender and a troubled ex-cop who turns into a self-appointed protector of public morality campaigning to drive the ex-prisoner out of town.

    Brad (Patrick Wilson) is a househusband caring for his little boy while feebly preparing for his previously failed bar exams. He has a gorgeous but emasculating wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) who's a successful PBS-style documentary filmmaker. Sarah (Kate Winslet), with an MA in English, in charge of a recalcitrant little girl with whom she has little patience at times, has a well-off distant husband (Gregg Edelman) who's a pretentious adman who gets off on Web porn. Sarah and Brad meet in a park where moms take their kids, in East Wyndham, Massachusetts. They wind up kissing when they first meet, mainly to shock the other moms.

    Brad and Sarah spend a lot of the summer minding their kids together at the municipal pool. This turns into a torrid affair with frequent sex at Sarah's husband's large house. They're attractive, and attracted, and their general dissatisfaction with their spouses and with where they are now heightens their need to throw themselves at each other with the utmost abandon.

    Meanwhile Ronnie (former child actor Jackie Earle Haley, vividly remembered from Bad News Bears and Breaking Away and strong in a new way here) has come into town: he's the sex offender, a painfully self-aware one, and he lives with the one person who loves him, his aging mother Ruth (a convincing Phyllis Somerville), while the ex-cop, Larry (Noah Emmerich) wages his war as a one-man "committee." Larry and Brad have met and Larry persuades Brad, who already wastes time watching boys skateboarding when he's supposed to be boning up for the bar exam, to join a night touch football league team made up of cops – and thus the infidelity and the sex offender elements are linked. But they would be anyway, because this is a small community. And one particularly hot day Ronnie comes to the municipal swimming pool and causes an outcry when he's spotted ogling young girls under water.

    The other moms from the park, who were afraid of Brad and called him "the Prom King," are gently satirized by a voice-over narration spoken by Will Lyman, of Frontline on PBS, which sounds like a high school educational film. Perrotta is, after all, a comic writer. But more of that later.

    The movie has a bright, intense, clear visual style, sometimes making use of extreme close-ups. Since the acting and directing are fine, this gives things a feeling of authority. It's also effective in underlining both the satirical and the sensual aspects of the story, and heightens the emotional effect when the narrative lines move toward crisis.

    Brad's development (the novel-based voice-over tells us) may have been arrested by his mother's dying when he was in his early teens, and this explains why he watches the skateboarding boys with such longing: they're having the playtime that was stolen from him.

    Another theme is that of Cheryl (Marsha Dietlein), Sarah's friend and neighbor who baby-sits with her daughter when she's having sex with Brad, speed-walks with her, and gets her into a book-discussion group leading to a pointed scene in which Madame Bovary is discussed and Sarah defends the adulterous heroine as someone who revolted in search of freedom. The older women nod approvingly, while one of the park moms doesn't get it at all.

    Partly because it's hard to juggle all these elements from a 350-page novel, the ironic narrative voice disappears throughout the film's midsection.

    At the end matters all come to a head, with Brad and Sarah, with Ronnie, and with his erstwhile nemesis, Larry, and a lot of tension is created through Hitchcockian cross-cutting between these climaxing threads.

    Field has avoided the extreme finale of his first film — this one shares such heavy concerns as families, infidelity, crime, and confronting death, but by contrast, this ending, though breathless and troubling, is ultimately sweet and marked by reconciliation and acceptance. One may wonder if underlying issues have really been resolved. The film feels somewhat overlong, but the nuanced characterizations and fine acting and the attractiveness of the central couple entertain and interest us mightily.

    Perhaps the one weakness overall is a slight uncertainty of tone, which explains why some viewers are troubled by the voice-over (and also by its long disappearance midway). If situations are seen primarily as highly serious or even horrifying, it's hard to see how the satirical feel fits in, and at the end we seem to have lost touch with where we started out. Ultimately as with so many American stories on film, the writers seem to have tried to tackle too much material. Nothing wrong with that, but they haven't quite got the world-view to encompass it all. Technically though Field has achieved more polish and shown more confidence, even compared to his already admirable and powerful first film of five years ago. The cast is wonderful, well chosen and well used. Field is an experienced actor: he knows the craft. This has got to be a film to think about at year's end when best lists are made up.

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