Little Children (2006)

Genre(s): Crime / Drama / Romance
New Line || R - 130 minutes || November 3, 2006
Reviewer: Andy Hoglund || Posted On: 2006-12-09

.:: F I L M ::.

Director: Tood Field
Writer(s): Tom Perrotta (novel), Todd Field & Tom Perrotta (screenplay)
Cast: Kate Winslet, Jennifer Connelly, Patrick Wilson, Gregg Edelman, Sadie Goldstein, Ty Simpkins, Noah Emmerich

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Its been half a decade since Todd Field’s directorial debut, the superb In the Bedroom, but he hasn’t lost his taste for the high-minded tragedy that lurks beneath the surface in average American homes. In his sophomore effort, Little Children, Field revisits everyday middle-class Americans who find themselves bound by extraordinary circumstances in an otherwise banal and ordinary environment. The result is mixed; at once a fascinatingly stylized take on suburbia, Little Children occasionally meanders about, puttering along like a racecar in need of a fresh tank of gas.

The film opens in a playground with Sarah (Kate Winslet), lost in a haze, appearing to have just awakened from some long dream that cast her as a stay-at-home mom. She stares blankly at her contemporaries, overbearing suburban women, the likes of whom are always portrayed in films as being far too enthusiastic about their mundane roles as caregivers. Sarah, like Chopin’s Edna Pontellier, views her life as a disappointment and her daughter, a burden. Played by Winslet, Sarah is frumpy and plain, yet inherently beautiful; she exudes intelligence and grace effortlessly. This is why Winslet is one of Hollywood’s great modern actresses.

Suffocated, Sarah discovers a kindred spirit in Brad (the outstanding Patrick Wilson), a failed law student also stifled by boredom and his own feelings of inadequacy. They begin a passionate affair under the noses of their children and spouses: Sarah’s husband, an needle-necked pencil pusher addicted to online porn and Brad’s wife Kathy (played by an underutilized Jennifer Connelly), a domineering documentary filmmaker. Sarah and Brad’s romance gives the film its major conflict—will the guilt of their infidelity crush Brad? What’s their responsibility to their neglected kids, who bear witness to much of the flirting and canoodling? Will their union give Sarah the sort of fulfillment she’s been searching for?

The love affair is leisurely paced, blending farce and tragedy in a way that undoes the driving force behind the film. There is never any real dramatic tension in Sarah and Brad’s affair, thus the entire film comes off a bit spineless. The fault here lies not with the actors, who are excellent, but the script by Fields and Tom Perrotta, who also wrote the novel Little Children is based on. This comes as no surprise, considering the intrusive narration which blatantly expresses the inner turmoil expressed by Winslet and Wilson, undermining their, well... acting. Omnipotence is fine for literature, but in Little Children it is disconcerting.

One of the clever plays on the film’s title centers on Ronnie McGorvey, who has, you guessed it, a penchant for little children. Well, actually it’s a psychosexual disorder, but whatever it is, its more than enough for East Wyndam’s concerned citizens. As the sex offender trying to fight against his own impulses and become a decent member of the community, Jackie Earle Haley is both heartbreaking and truly frightening in a comeback performance. Haley, formerly a child star, is having a banner year, touched off by this performance, which is his first film appearance since 1993. His casting is one of the most inspired choices in a recent Hollywood picture and though his range is limited, his warped body and child-like voice make him fit this role perfectly.

Born in suburbia, one wonders if this is how actual parents act to displace their own malaise. East Wyndam, where the film is set, seems icy and almost cartoonish, its inhabitants typically presented as caricatures. Still, Fields possesses a keen eye for nuance and how his protagonists think. One of the more interesting segments of the film take place within Brad’s mind, as he chooses between his two love interests. As an accurate satire of how the mind of men sometimes operate, Brad systematically examines the physical features of both Sarah and Kathy as if they were chunks of rump roast on a butcher’s cutting board. If only we all had such difficult decisions in our lives.

By the end of Little Children, there’s both a feeling of inevitability, but also a chaotic quality to how the characters behave. Despite its faults and tendency to linger, Fields has somehow breathed life into Sarah, Brad and Ronnie, making their fates the only real question worth caring about. Its flawed, but that in itself makes it successful, endearing and, to a certain extent, more humanistic. Successful character studies are a rarity within the Hollywood system these days and based on that alone, Little Children more than rises to the occasion.