on May 3, 2007
There is a bucolic, brief scene of restless suburbanite Sarah (Kate Winslet) sitting peacefully under a tree, reading, in Little Children. Her daughter Lucy plays happily nearby as the leaves rustle and the birds chirp. Everything is bathed in perfect light. All of the elements--the camera, the performers, nature, etc.--conspire to make an invigorating, warm shot.
This single scene sums up the overall tone for director Todd Field's assured sophomore effort. He chooses this image, which moves, languidly, from a tight full-body shot of the serene actress to a longer, more atmospheric shot. As the first image the viewer sees on the menu page of the DVD. It is an evocative, iconic shot that speaks volumes without any words. It is pure, gorgeous ambiance--something Field is shaping up to be very keen on, and very good at.
A leisurely little movie that pits an acerbic script (by Field and Tom Perrota--who wrote the expansive 350 page novel on which the film is based) with a brilliantly mismatched ensemble, Little Children is a rare contemporary film that is nearly perfect in its execution. Stillness in both mood and pace are just as important to the director as lingering close-ups of his actors' attractive reactions. Field is able to present, believably, a vision of bourgeois suburbia as an almost mythical netherworld. Often, dangerously, the atmosphere here can change on a dime: from playful to sexy to deadly and back again within the same scene.
Sarah is sort of a bad mother. She's a little selfish about her time. She doesn't quite connect to her adorable moppet of a daughter in the way she expected to. The film is unafraid to debunk the stereotypes about settling down and being a "mommy". Sarah would say that it isn't all it's cracked up to be. She left a life of academia behind to marry an older man and take over the pristine, first wife-decorated manse located on a prized plot of land in this snobbish suburban enclave.
The other brittle, embittered young women that hang out at the park with their regimented children treat Sarah to an infuriatingly smug and superior manner every day. Perhaps this is just an obvious sign they are jealous of her, or perhaps they are only talking to her out of pity: Sarah is more than a bit disheveled and doesn't give a flip about appearances, and why should she? Her marriage is pretty much dead and the only person she sees during the day is Lucy. While the other gals are in full hair and make-up, heels, and perfect pressed little dresses, Sarah goes the comfortable route in shapeless overalls.
They recoil in horror as Sarah fumbles futilely for her daughter's non-existent snack; trying desperately to save face in front of the group as they judgingly produce nutritious treats for their perfect "little children" from the bowels of their overly-priced designer bags. They viciously gossip about the neighborhood's newest addition, Ronnie: a convicted sex offender freshly released from prison (the amazing former child actor Jackie Earle Haley).
These scenes at the park (the park is apparently the hub of all socio-political action in the land of the bourgeoisie), in which the humiliating suburban hassle gets inflicted on Sarah relentlessly by this group of harpies stand out, mainly because of the highlighting of the gossipy, demeaning behavior of the bored and unfulfilled yuppie set. These patronizing women are cinematic ice queen cousins to women like Annette Bening's Carolyn Burnham from American Beauty or Mary Tyler Moore's Beth Jarret from Ordinary People: spoiled, repressed, and filled with venom. The displaced Sarah can't relate to their malaise. She believes she is much different from them.
When "the Prom King" (stay-at-home dad Brad, played by Patrick Wilson) starts frequenting the girls' territory with his son, the fearless Sarah decides to shock the other women by actually speaking to the handsome father. Turns out Brad's life is not as dreamy as he'd like it to be: even though he is married to the outrageously beautiful documentary filmmaker Kathy (the outrageously beautiful Jennifer Connelly), with whom he has a son, Aaron; Brad has failed the bar exam twice and would rather sit and watch teenage boys skateboarding than study for his third and final attempt at the test.
Fallen cop turned vigilante Larry (the fierce Noah Emmerich) ropes Brad into a secret league of brutish nighttime football players, in addition to forcing him to aid in the neighborhood crusade against Ronnie, who is still a mere specter in the film at this point; he's just whispered hatefully about.
Brad longs to re-capture his macho youth. His fire, it seems, was snuffed out by settling down in the suburbs. Taking over a traditionally female role, as Kathy becomes the family's breadwinner, Brad becomes just another version of a bored suburban housewife himself. Little Children seems to say that only stupid people are content with that sort of existence. Brad and Sarah are both very educated people; so naturally, they begin to gravitate towards one another. Eventually, they embark on a dangerous, erotic affair, complete with some raw, realistic sex scenes between the two brave actors.
Forty-five minutes into the film, as Brad and Sarah begin to flaunt their tawdriness all over town, the character of Ronnie makes his appearance into the film, looking every bit the creepy boogie man pedophile that every parent has nightmares about. He is pale and sickly looking, almost transparent; curiously, he resembles bloodsucker Max Shreck in Nosferatu.
The far-from discrete Brad and Sarah have a standing date to meet every day at the community pool. On a bright, hot day when all of the kids and parents are cooling off in the pool, the ridiculously-attired Ronnie (complete with goggles and flippers), struts foolishly into the swimming pool and the camera dives disturbingly down into the water with him, as he creepily, secretly watches the kids moving in slow motion underwater.
It is only a matter of time before he is spotted by the frantic mob of parents; who resemble the villagers who chase after the monster in Frankenstein with torches and a pack of rabid zombies. They openly display the kind of cruelty that leads to trouble. It's also only a matter of time before Ronnie is the only one left in the pool. The police arrive within what seems like seconds to take the sex offender away from the kids.
What unfolds in the film's second half is a complex, meditative drama that offers some biting insights on the art routine. The film deftly explores the everyday perversions of those who we think are the most normal (Winslet catching her cuckolded, mysterious husband masturbating in his home office is one of the funniest, most awkward scenes in a recent film). Despite the undercurrent of genuinely funny cynicism running through its acid narration, Little Children still remains a true tragedy at heart; and a tightly-wound, emotionally suspenseful one at that.
At its core, the film is about mothers and their deep, formative bonds with their children. Sarah is jealous of the super-mommy gang, but she doesn't really want to put much effort into her relationship with Lucy; she's more interested in escaping her duties into her fantasy world with Brad. Ronnie lives with his fiercely devoted, frail mother May (a scene-stealing Phyllis Somerville); a tough old neighborhood stalwart who believes her son to be innocent as she excitedly sets up a personal ad date for him. Aaron is constantly wearing a jester's cap around Brad, but takes it off as soon as his beloved mom Kathy gets home from work.
Each mother in Little Children is able to put a fresh spin on the theme of things not turning out quite the way one might have pictured, and each finds a way of coping and soldiering on. Tough senior citizen May is forced to physically defend her adult son from bullies in her own home, while Kathy is quietly more enamored of her job and son than she is of her clearly depressed husband. Sarah turns out to be almost as sad as the rest of them: she cruelly ignores her daughter to imagine a life with Brad. As the film builds to a breathtaking climax, she is seen in the dark park, late at night, alone with Lucy; waiting for a romantic getaway that is never going to happen.
Winslet's skillful handling of these almost wordless scenes is masterful in what she is able to convey through her eyes: Sarah is going to be abruptly thrown right back into her boring old routine come early morning, like all that transpired before had never happened. It is a vague ending (complete with one shocking Shakespearean-level catharsis), and Field leaves a lot of hanging plots' resolutions up to his viewers; who should easily be able to put the pieces together thanks to the cast's lived-in, seamless performances and Field & Perrota's lean, eloquent script.
Following the success of 2001's critical darling In the Bedroom, Field proves again that he has a gift for capturing, strikingly, the complexities of small town melancholy. Little Children also demonstrates his clear gift and affinity for the art of guiding his actors to giving gloriously quiet, devastating performances. Sissy Space, Marisa Tomei, and Tom Wilkinson were all rewarded with Oscar nominations for their work in In the Bedroom; while Haley and Winslet were nominated for their work here--Winslet earning her fifth career nomination.
From the smallest supporting role, to the powerhouse leads, Field imbues each character with soul and flavor; as he does with every other technical detail of the film. His eye for the minutiae of the everyday is impeccable.
"Little Children," directed by Todd Field (who also scored with the 2001 film In the Bedroom), is a spectacular adaptation of the Tom Perrotta novel from which it is derived. Field and Perrotta, who co-wrote the screenplay, captured the essence of the book and made it sparkle on the screen. It focuses on Brad and Sarah, two unhappily married people who feel that their lives have been waylaid by parenthood. Brad was a college athlete bound for a career as an attorney when his beautiful wife's work as a director of documentaries took off, they had a son, and Brad became seemingly incapable of passing the bar exam (his wife, by the way, is played by Jennifer Connelly, who does quite a lot with a relatively small amount of screen time). He doesn't really mind being cast as Mr. Mom, seeing as his greater ambitions seem to have gone up in smoke, but he does feel uncomfortable around the moms populating the playground and town pool -- who have dubbed him "the prom king" because of his good looks. That all changes when he meets kindred spirit Sarah (the exquisitely natural Kate Winslet, who earned an Oscar nom for her deeply layered and precise performance), who had been on her way to a PhD in literature until marriage and motherhood got in the way. Now her already shaky marriage is on the rocks thanks to her husband's curious use of 'office time' (I won't spoil the surprise), and she and Brad jump at the opportunity to throw it all away by starting a passionate affair while their children nap during playdates. The title, you see, refers to the adults in this story as much as the children that have appeared in their lives. "Little Children" is filled with characters in a state of arrested development -- either unable or unwilling to grow up and face the real life of bills, chores, snack times, diapers, and such that they find themselves consumed by.
Add into this mix the subplot involving a registered sex offender (played by the film's other Academy Award nominee, Jackie Earle Haley) who moves to town after getting sprung from prison and you've got a stellar, complicated movie going. The tone is comedic and dramatic, optimistic and heartbreaking, relatable yet disturbing -- a dangerous high wire act, to be sure, but one that Field and the stellar cast navigate with the greatest of ease. And Field knows how to use symbolism very well: the subtle sound of trains inexorably chugging away in the background of the film's beginning scenes, growing louder and more ominous as the plotlines converge and begin to 'derail', the screaming sound of insects in another key scene, cracks at the bottom of a swimming pool ... he really has an eye for the tiny details you almost don't notice. His one misstep? The narration of the film is too obvious in an otherwise subtle, genius film. Field's staging hints at the themes too well to have them explained to us, and the actors do such a great job conveying their character's inner desires that we don't need to have someone tell us that information. A scene in which Brad triumphantly charges toward the end zone during a football game is so overdone with narration and cheesy music that it's actually groan-inducing. I think that Field was trying to be cheesy in that moment, but he succeeded a little too well at it. The special features are also non-existant, which is a disappointment. But at any rate, it is a spectacular flick, and I would highly recommend it.
But be sure to pick up the book, Little Children: A Novel as well. With more elbow room than a film's inevitable demands on running time can allow, Perrotta really gets at a host of other characters and ideas that are minor in the movie. In the novel we get to go home with Mary Anne, the Stepford wife of the playground, and find out why she adheres to such a rigorous schedule. And in Brad's wife we discover a vindictive competitiveness that comes out when she suspects that her husband is straying. These golden touches and more can be found only in the novel, so be sure to snap up a copy post haste.
on October 11, 2006
"Little Children" is a perfect movie: intelligently directed, lavishly produced, beautifully photographed, gloriously acted, intricately plotted and logically put together.
Director Todd Field's first film, "In the Bedroom" (based on a story by Andre Dubus) was also effective, moving, and brutal: a kitchen sink drama about a murder, the families involved with that murder and the repercussions involved therein.
In "Little Children," Fields has ratcheted up the living circumstances to upstate, suburban Massachusetts: plain jane, Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) unhappily married to a porno -obsessed, mostly absent husband, the drop dead gorgeous couple of Kathy and Brad Anderson (Patrick Wilson and for once not playing a victim, the luminous Jennifer Connolly) who have reached an impasse in their marriage as Kathy is it's sole provider and Brad is conflicted about taking the Law Bar exam for the third time. Thrown into this mix is a recently released from jail for exposing himself to a child, Ronald McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley) and his loving, doting Mother (Phyllis Somerville).
Sarah and Brad, both with their children, meet in a park one day: attraction is inevitable though neither is the other ones "type." That said, what they do fill for each other are those voids that tend to get bigger and deeper as we grow older, grow more disappointed with our lives and realize that our dreams will probably not come true. Fairy-tale romance this one? Hardly. Fields is too much the realist, his psyche and artistic intuition too much about the realities of contemporary life to go that route and Winslet and Wilson give Sarah and Brad their all: vulnerable, romantic, crazy-in-lust even but again always looking over their shoulders for that "thing" that will break them up. Their sex scenes are filmed with this kind of tension and though they make love in private, they may as well be outdoors on a busy street because, though they are definitely into it...both have one eye open...waiting for the door to open, waiting to be discovered, caught, unveiled.
Though there is a lot of sex and violence here, there is really not much love except that between the "sex criminal" Ronald and his Mother. Ronald's Mom loves him without reservation though she is more than aware of his shortcomings. She even goes so far as to arrange a computer date for him as "you need to meet a nice girl, Ronald." What ensues is inevitable and funny/sad.
Jennifer Connelly plays Kathy as an icy-cold *itch, seemingly in control, career-minded, needing Brad to step up to the plate financially and professionally but at the same time needing him to be adrift, lost, emotionally wounded so that she can despise and pity him, be her whipping boy, her child yet her husband. In many ways, Kathy needs Brad to fail so that she can feel superior, to have a vessel into which she can pour her bile. When Connolly intuits the affair between Brad and Sarah at a dinner at her home, she does it with barely a nod of her head and a deep, burning flick of her beautiful eyes: you actually feel her eyes gouging a hole into you as you watch.
"Little Children" is about just that...but not the chronologically appropriate ones. It's about supposed adults who carry on without thinking like adults, without weighing or really caring about the consequences of their actions. And like Ang Lee's masterful "Ice Storm," "Little Children" is psychically set in a place in which we must tread very carefully always aware that what he is saying here might just apply to our very own lives.
Kate Winslet stars in "Little Children" as Sarah, a bored housewife and mother. She spends her days enduring miserable playground playdates with the neighborhood mothers. She's the designated ditzy mother, who forgets to bring her daughter's snack and even fails to bond with her child. At one point, she compares herself to an anthropologist studying a foreign culture, so alienated is she from her fellow mothers. Into this morass stumbles Patrick Wilson playing Brad, the only stay-at-home father in the neighborhood. The women are fascinated by Brad and quickly nickname him "The Prom King." However, despite their fantasies about Brad, they're petrified to actually admit this handsome young father into their group. One day, Sarah does precisely that.
The movie is ultimately about isolation, which is even more strongly seen in a subplot concerning Jackie Earle Haley. His character returns home following a conviction for exposing himself to a child. The townspeople react to him with predictable venom, even as their own misdeeds unfold before our eyes. This moral ambiguity permeates every frame of "Little Children," turning a good drama into something more transcendent - something much more akin to real life. Indeed, characters go from likeable to pathetic and back again within a blink of an eye, all lead by the brilliant acting of Winslet.
Todd Field's follow-up to 2001's "In the Bedroom" is masterfully directed. Fortunately, "Little Children" manages to avoid the melodrama that marred his earlier effort. The Oscar nominated screenplay by Todd Field and Tom Perrotta is based on Perrotta's novel of the same name. The script doesn't always flow perfectly, with frequent jumps between subplots and sometimes jarring changes in tone. However, the plot avoids predictability, with just a few missteps toward the end. All in all, "Little Children" is a first-rate drama - the kind that will stick with you long after the denouement.
Little Children opened and received some of the best reviews of the year. Problem was, it had little press and a limited theatrical release. The 3 Academy Award nominations it received, it probably received more from word of mouth than anything. Anyway, the poster of the film intrigued me and prompted me to read the book a few months ago. Since then, I have been aching to see the film. Now, my dream has come true and I've seen it and I think it's the best film of 2006. Not only does it work purely as a film, but it's also the epitome of a great literary adaptation. It does what all the great literary adaptations have done; changed little, added less. The screenplay is by the writer of the novel, Tom Perrotta and the director of the film, Todd Field...I think this proves that maybe the novelist is best suited to adapt his own work.
The film takes place in an anonymous suburb, deep in the heart of suburbia. Kate Winslet plays Sarah, a young wife and mother who has no idea what she's doing in the lifestyle that she is now in. Her day consists of taking her daughter Lucy to the park and listening to the boring chitchat of her fellow mothers. That's until she sees The Prom King (Patrick Wilson), whose real name is Brad, the stay-at-home-dad that brings his son to the park and is the object of every playground mother's affection. When the mothers bet Sarah five bucks to get his phone number, she winds up with a kiss instead...This kiss spirals into a full-on affair. Meanwhile, a convicted sex offender has moved into the neighborhood in the form of Ronnie J. McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley) and is the victim of harassment at the hands of Larry (Noah Emmerich, whose brother is pretty high up at New Line Cinema), the head of the committee of concerned parents. Jennifer Connelly plays Kathy, Brad's wife who (he openly admits) his much more beautiful than Sarah. The movie is a straight- forward drama, but is very much a satire of suburban America that rings very true.
The best part of the film is the sub-plot involving Ronnie McGorvey and you realize that, in many cases, the offender often becomes the victim. As you probably know, the favorite to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar was Eddie Murphy but it (very) unexpectedly went to Alan Arkin. The Academy made a big mistake! Jackie Earle Haley delivered the best supporting performance of 2006 and has a truly great comeback story. This is a character that's hard to like. No matter what the crime was, no one likes a sex offender...This film really shows how unfair the treatment of them can be and Haley portrays McGorvey in a way I don't think anyone else can. The first scene he appears in and his first lines in the film ("I was only trying to cool off") are truly haunting and effective. Kate Winslet is also inspired casting.
I've read two novels by Perrotta (the other was also made into a film, 'Election') and he has no problem exposing the imperfections of his characters. "Election" ignored that aspect, "Little Children" doesn't. An actress like Angelina Jolie or Cameron Diaz would not have been able to make this character believable. The film is really just an amazing piece of work. During the entire film I kept wondering if they kept the ending from the novel. The novel ends abruptly and I didn't think it would be realistic on film. The film also ends rather abruptly and, yes; they did change the ending. In doing so, they gave a much more poignant and MUCH MORE haunting ending that is very shocking. When reading the book I noticed many instances where I thought to myself 'no way this is in the movie' and much to my surprise and enjoyment, much of it is! 90% of the book is in the movie. The only things they dropped (that are incredibly noticeable) were a sub-plot involving a past crime of McGorvey's and Sarah's husband's escapade with his obsession. It's a toss up for me trying to decide if the film is better than the book, but on a whim I want to say yes.
This is a great film; A poignant, powerful, haunting, sometimes funny film. It's absolutely brilliant and the finest piece of filmmaking to come out of 2006.
It's interesting that within the last few years, not only has the suburban satire film proliferated, it has become a genre in and of itself. "Little Children" is the latest in a long stream of films in which characters who seemingly live idyllic lives are really just masking a darker subtext. Somewhere between black humor and tragedy lies the world of "Little Children"--a world that includes pedophilia, adultery, Internet pornography, and many souls disconnected from those who should be the closest to them.
Todd Fields follows up his "In The Bedroom" with a film lighter in tone, but more ambitious in reach. Here, we get a disparate group of characters all yearning for some intangible just outside their grasp. Kate Winslet plays a mother with an emotional detachment from her family. She often finds herself just going through the motions of motherhood without having a real bond with her daughter. Patrick Wilson plays a husband lacking in direction and ambition whose life is seemingly in a holding pattern. Add a pedophile just released from jail and a former cop tortured by mistakes from his past and you get the primary quartet of characters.
I know some viewers have been disconcerted about the film's moral ambiguity. There aren't really characters to root for here. As Winslet and Wilson enter into the adulterous liaison, though, it is something that you understand. The film asks you to identify with them and you do, even if their choices are questionable. Much of the film's humor comes from a sporadic voice-over narration. While voice-over can be a tedious device, I almost hoped for more of it in "Little Children"--these are the moments the film becomes wickedly funny. It pulls you in so that you become complicit in the misdeeds and hypocrisy of the characters.
Kate Winslet excels, again. Part of her unlimited appeal is her complete lack of ego. It's refreshing to she someone so intent on being an "actor" as opposed to being a "star"--and, in that, she has become both. While not always likable, especially in her relationship with her daughter, she conveys a real woman--one trapped and desperate to feel anything. Patrick Wilson is having a great year. Following the blistering "Hard Candy," this is a one-two punch that should elevate his stature as a leading man. Charming and infuriating, he capitalizes both on his boyish appeal and his manly charisma. It is a star-making turn. And a lot has been said about Jackie Earle Haley's performance as the pedophile. In a carefully nuanced role, he manages to be both creepy and surprisingly heartbreaking. This is a very well-balanced and talented cast--so even when "Little Children" treads in familiar territory, you'll want to follow.
The film doesn't break new ground--but with a smart script and great performances, "Little Children" is noteworthy and entertaining. You can sense, as the film proceeds, that you are moving toward a catastrophe that not one of the characters can disengage from. And as events hit a crescendo that seems heavy-handed--you might be surprised by how subtle some of the shifts really turn out to be. About 4 1/2 stars, I hope "Children" can find a wider audience! KGHarris, 12/06.
When I read this novel, it really spoke to me. I could identify with the feelings of some of the characters and their often self-destructive choices made them very human. While I do think the movie does a fine job of this as well, I didn't like how it diverged from the book. The changes weren't hugely significant but they were enough to make me feel that the movie was a much less satisfying experience than the book.
I was particularly disappointed with the changes in Sarah. As in the book, she is often self absorbed and absent with her child but I felt the book provided more of an explanation--though not necessarily a justification--of her actions. Her husband is barely evident in the movie and I think the dynamic of their marriage as expressed in the book goes a long way towards explaining what makes Sarah who she is. In the movie she's portrayed more as a woman dissatisfied with being a stay-at-home mom. While this was also the case in the book, she also had a crumbling marriage with which to contend. I felt the movie made her out to be more of a villain and less a victim of circumstance. Though I did like the idea of her recognizing at long last just how much her child meant to her, I thought the movie as a whole did her character a great deal of disservice.
In spite of this, I still admired the film for its fine acting. I particularly liked the scene in which Sarah explained her views of Madame Bovary to her book club and then, as she realized how akin she was to the character, the prickling of her conscience and her sense of guilt is made very evident by the slightest of winces. Winslet is a superb actress and even though I initially thought her too pretty to play Sarah, she took the character and made it her own.
The scene at the pool is also superb and uncomfortably visceral. Though Ronnie does nothing more than swim around, it's an extremely icky scene that, as a parent, made me squirm. Haley did a really fine job of portraying Ronnie, making him an obviously disturbed human being for whom it is possible to feel some twinges of sympathy. Rather than his simply being a one-dimensional monster, the character is very nuanced and complex.
Brad is perfectly portrayed by Wilson and though Connelly is a good actress, there's not much for her to do in this film other than nag her husband. Wilson plays Brad is a man who hasn't quite grown up and accepted responsibility but, on the flip side, it's also easy to see why there is tension between him and his wife given that she's prone to treating their son as more of an adult than her husband.
With 'Little Children,' Todd Field has now established himself as one of this country's finest directors. Has there been another actor (Eyes Wide Shut, Walking and Talking) in recent times that has so expertly made the transition to the other side of the lens? As much as I liked Field's critically acclaimed debut, 'In the Bedroom,' 'Little Children' surpasses it. Here, he teams with the Tom Perrotta, author of the novel of the same name, to craft a compelling screenplay. And talk about establishing tone - it's gripping right from the start.
Two standout scenes: the one where the convicted sex offender played by Jackie Earle Haley shows up at the neighborhood pool (a masterpiece of directorial choreography; Field and Perrotta depict sudden realization and hysteria spreading over a crowd of at least 100); and the opening scene where 'prom king' Patrick Wilson suddenly kisses Kate Winslet in the park (that moment and the immediate reaction of the nattering Moms is pitch-perfect).
Kate Winslet justly got an Oscar nomination for her portrayal; and Film Critic circles heaped just praise on the back-from-unjust-oblivion performance of Jackie Earle Haley. But I wonder why Patrick Wilson constantly got overlooked? A favorite of mine since his breakout in Mike Nichols' HBO adaptation of 'Angels in America,' he's superlative here. To a lesser extent, the same goes for character actor Noah Emmerich, who is really great as the coming-apart-at-the-seams ex-cop Larry Hedges.
And much of the success of getting the tone and scope of the novel fit into a movie has to go to Will Lyman, who provides some critical narration. Narrators often don't work at all, but Lyman's voice and intonation lend both gravitas and a knowing little smirk. He's best known for being the voice of TV's Frontline. His voice here on 'Children' grabs you right away. It makes you pay attention to every word. Lyman's presence is yet another great choice by Todd Field.
There is a lot going on in "Little Children", starring Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson (the musical version of "Phantom of the Opera" and "Hard Candy") and Jennifer Connelly. I am not sure I even caught everything or understood all that I caught.
Sarah Pierce (Winslet), a new stay at home mom, struggles with the solitude of her new role. Spending every moment with a three year old, who can barely communicate, tests the patience of the one-time English scholar. Sarah has a Masters, but ruefully admits she never wrote her dissertation and never received her PhD. One day, at a local playground, she interacts with a group of suburban moms and the differences are clear. They embrace motherhood, in different ways, making sure to bring snacks for the children's play break, and seem to relish all that their new role brings. One day, Brad (Wilson), a stay at home dad, who is supposed to be studying for his bar exam, brings his son to the playground. The three women quickly inform Sarah they have nicknamed him "The Prom King", because of his good looks. Sarah is amazed to find they have never talked to him. "He makes us nervous." One of the women bets Sarah five dollars that she won't get his phone number. Sarah not only gets his phone number, but he lets him in on the joke and they hug and kiss, to the shock of the uptight mothers. Soon, Brad, thoroughly emasculated by his wife, Kathy (Connelly), becomes slightly obsessed with finding ways to demonstrate he can still produce testosterone. For every time his wife talks him out of getting a cell phone, he stops to watch a group of teenage boys doing impressive skateboard moves. For every time she questions if he `really needs' that subscription to Sports Illustrated or Men's Fitness, he meets up with a group of guys and joins a nighttime Touch Football League. Soon, Sarah and Brad start a passionate affair. All the while, their quiet suburban community deals with Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), a convicted pedophile who has just been released from prison. He returns to his mother's (Phyllis Somerville) home and she helps him endure the constant taunts of an overzealous neighbor, Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich, the brother of the head of New Line Cinema who produced the film). Soon, all these people's fates will intersect in strange, unusual and interesting ways.
"Little Children", directed by Todd Field ("In the Bedroom") and based on a book by Tom Perrotta, who co-wrote the screenplay with Field, may just end up being one of the best films of the year. But it feels a little less than perfect.
The performances of the three leads are all outstanding. Kate Winslet, who has chosen many interesting roles throughout her career, continues this streak with Sarah Pierce. As the mid-30s mom of a three year old, she demonstrates many conflicting things with just about every word, every nuance. As a new mother, she clearly loves her daughter, but she feels stifled by the constant companionship of her daughter, longing for some adult conversation, some adult interaction. The second wife of an older man, she doesn't seem to have much need for her husband and he for her. She counts the minutes for him to return home, so she can spend a little time with a neighborhood friend doing her fitness walk. During the daily visit to the playground, she would probably find some comfort in the companionship of the other three mothers, but they are even less mature than she is. One, a domineering bully, insists her child adhere to a rigid schedule. She has carried this so far to schedule a weekly appointment to have sex with her husband. Another is clearly flirtatious and wants Sarah to do the daring things she is unable to. Then, Sarah meets Brad and is clearly attracted to the handsome young father.
Brad (Wilson), loves his wife and freely admits she is a knockout, but because he is a stay at home dad, and money is tight, they have to watch every penny. His wife (Connelly) makes documentaries for PBS (we all know there isn't a lot of money in that) and they frequently receive help from her mother. After watching their son all day, he is sent to the library every night, to study for the bar exam, something he deems a fruitless pursuit. Instead, he spends most evenings watching a group of kids do stunts on their skateboards. One night, Bob pulls up and recruits him for a Touch Football game with a bunch of his former work colleagues, a group of cops. These few moments with other men, prove to be just the little boost he needs to maintain his sanity. Then he meets Sarah, and although he admits she isn't his type, they begin a passionate affair.
Connelly's role, as Brad's wife, would technically be considered a supporting role, but it is equally important to the tapestry of the film. It isn't that Brad and Kathy don't love each other, they do, they are just too immature to express it. When Kathy suspects Brad of having an affair, she enlists the aid of her mother to come for a visit and `help Brad watch Aaron', their son. Soon, Grandma follows Brad everywhere, robbing him of any opportunity to have sex with Sarah.
Jackie Earle Haley is also very good as Ronnie, the recently released pedophile. Clearly, this is a man who has not been `cured', but because he has served his time, he is released to live with his aging mother. May worries about her son. She knows he did something wrong, but she wants him to try to live a normal live. She won't be around forever and worries about what will happen to him after he dies.
There are a lot of nice touches to the characters. Sarah joins a book group in which they discuss "Madame Bovary", a book she used to dislike but finds she know enjoys. Brad ditches an appointment, much like a petulant teenager forced to do something they don't want to do, because Sarah entices him to spend the time with her instead. Ronnie's mother is portrayed as a caring, doting mother who cares about her son and will continue to defend him until the day she dies.
Director Todd Field has created two very impressive films so far. Field is clearly a director who will only work when a particular project strikes his fancy ("In the Bedroom" was made over five years ago) and his attention to the project shows in almost every detail. Not only is "Little Children" well-written, it is a fairly unique experience as you watch it on the screen.
Using a narrator, the director adds a literary feel to the film. Initially, this was a little off-putting to me, but Field introduces the technique early, uses it sparingly, and it doesn't feel obtrusive. Occasionally, the narrator adds a little levity to the story or further illuminates the feelings of a particular character. I was afraid this technique would detract from the performances, but if anything, it adds to them.
"Children" is, at times, a darkly humorous film. I found myself laughing out loud a few times and I realized the filmmaker intended this. At the same time, you also realize that many of the things you are laughing at are slightly exaggerated events that could happen in any of our lives. As you laugh, you may recognize you are uneasy because many of the things these people do are slightly unusual, or even a little unpleasant. For instance, Sarah's husband has a fetish which is revealed to us. It is initially funny, but we soon realize it is probably more common than we know. As we laugh, we also cringe because we probably know someone who has a similar fetish. Maybe a fetish we have always suspected, but were afraid to admit.
The story, set in an Eastern suburb (I would imagine New York or Boston), is shot in a beautiful, almost luminous way. Every scene seems just slightly oversaturated, giving the film's summer setting another nod.
Also, Field has designed a unique sound for the film. In many scenes, much of the ambient noise is reduced to favor a particular sound. As this is a suburb, a set of busy train tracks runs through the back of the community. Frequently, we hear the sound of a large train speeding down the tracks, further reinforcing a character's isolation or desperation. In one scene, the sound of many clocks becomes oppressive. In another, crickets become the only sound heard, despite cars driving by. Because of this unique sound design, our other senses become heightened and in a film, the only other sense that matters is our vision. I felt like I was watching the film more intently, with a keener eye.
As good as Haley's portrayal of Ronnie is, and as interesting as the relationship between he and his mother is to watch, the character seems slightly unnecessary. As with the other characters, we spend a significant amount of time with Ronnie and his mother and the purpose of these characters seems to simply reinforce the main message of the film, which we already get. It isn't a problem to watch them, but it just seems a little superfluous.
There are a number of powerful scenes in "Little Children", some of which I will remember for a long time. The scenes between Brad and Sarah, when they are having sex, are passionate, explicit and convey the desperation of their lives and the solace they find in one another. Kathy learns of her son's new friend and suggests to Brad that they invite the family over. Without saying a word, Connelly expresses volumes about her character's knowledge of the affair between Brad and Sarah. Each of the character's desperation to lead a different life is expressed in believable ways. A date between Ronnie and a homely woman is also particularly memorable.
"Little Children" is a very good, almost excellent film containing some great performances. It is a film that will stay with you. And that is, in some ways a good thing, in others, bad.
"Little Children" is a film that deserves to be remembered during Oscar season, but I fear one of two things will happen. Either it will be completely overlooked, or it will receive nominations and not a single award. The film is a tightly integrated ensemble piece. If one person receives recognition, they all do.
on August 22, 2009
Kate Winslet's performance is nuanced and well done, but it's wasted in this dark, ill-conceived mess of a movie. The cloying tone of the male narrator reminds one of the female narrator of that waste-of-time tv series set on Wisteria Lane, another suburban enclave.
This production manages to be shallow, annoying, and overwrought to the point of often seeming comic, although the sequence of events grows increasingly violent. This director desperately needs to find some better, less cliched ideas to make a plot worthy of watching. A woman bored in suburbia? A man feeling emasculated by a capable wife who is the family breadwinner? A cop with "post-traumatic stress syndrome"? The movie strikes one as a paint-by-number creation, and an extremely sloppy one, at that. It ranks as the worst film I have seen in years.