Little Children (2006)
Starring: Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Haley, Noah Emmerich, Gregg Edelman, Phyllis Somerville
Directed by: Todd Field
On its surface, Little Children is yet another movie about the tedium of suburban living, and all the standard dysfunctions that lurk behind the white picket fences that we’ve seen repeated in movies and television. These have become tired cliches of late, almost making me dislike movies like American Beauty retroactively.
Luckily, Little Children gets past its set-up and beyond the cliches to deliver a fairly sharp, well acted, and seductive movie that, while flawed, draws your attention quickly and keeps it until the final frame. The movie stars Kate Winslet as Sarah Pierce, an educated, stay-at-home mom to preschooler Lucy (Sadie Goldstein), who attempts to escape the banalities of suburban motherhood and her loveless marriage to Richard (Gregg Edelman) by acting as an observer to the lifestyles of suburbanites, viewing fellow moms as an anthropologist would. Then, one day on her daily trips to the park, she meets Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) a stay at home dad, who has failed the bar exam twice, feeling inadequate compared to his successful wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly).
The movie follows the two through to their inevitable affair, while examining all the different personalities and disturbances at play in their quiet community, including Ronnie J. McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), recently released from jail for exposing himself to a minor, which sends the community into an uproar, led by Brad’s friend Larry (Noah Emmerich) an ex-cop who harasses McGorvey in an attempt to protect the neighbourhood from the registered sex offender.
The movie isn’t large on plot, but rather a character study interested in what makes these people tick. It’s powered by the raw sexual tension between Sarah and Brad, and interested in the Cult of the Child that pervades suburban living and what it’s like for those not ready to subvert their own desires for the benefit of their children. The movie doesn’t shy away from the fact that Sarah isn’t the best mother, and Brad is less than the ideal husband, even if his wife emasculates him in little ways throughout the movie.
The movie employs a narrator to explain the goings on in the neighbourhood, an omniscient third person who speaks of the characters and their thoughts as though he is narrating a nature documentary (Kathy is a documentarian by trade, tying the theme in). It’s an unusual device, in danger of becoming another cliche as narration seems to be a go-to trick in movies and TV these days, but one that works to make the movie more than just pointing the camera at people going through their ordinary, semi-scandalous lives. It helps that director Todd Field often frames the narration in irony more often than not, generating some genuine laughs. The only problem I ended up having with the narration is that it went away for too long as the plot developed, which is understandable since exposition was less necessary as things established, but unfortunate as it was a highlight.
I guess another failing of the movie is that it cast Winslet as a sort-of-plain housewife, going as far as describing her as such. Winslet works to maintain the illusion, playing Sarah as frantic, insecure, and somewhat frazzled, but come on: Kate Winslet is fucking gorgeous. Yes, so is Jennifer Connelly, and the movie quite slyly points out the difference between the two characters in a fantasy sequence of Brad’s, but you can never take your eyes of off Winslet for long. Oh well, that’s Hollywood, where beautiful women are made frumpy by wearing bad pants and split ends.
Other than that, Winslet is fantastic in the role, managing to evoke both sympathy and antipathy as the movie progresses. The movie does a fantastic job in developing the sexual tension between she and Patrick Wilson, to the point when they finally get together, you almost cheer while still reviling their behaviour. The cast is uniformly excellent in their roles, with Jackie Earle Haley being at once deeply disturbing and sadly sympathetic. His is a complicated role, one that the movie doesn’t quite know what to do with, and possibly a little showy in its presentation of mental dysfunction (which explains his Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, as Oscar loves showy presentations of mental dysfunction).
Unfortunately, while the movie does a lot of things right, it gets away from itself near the end. Field does a great job adding detail and nuance to all the different stories, but when it comes time to bring them together, it feels a little rushed and a little pat. The tension throughout the film is phenomenal, bringing you to the edge of your seat at times for what is essentially a movie about relationships, but the payoff doesn’t quite measure up to the tension throughout.
Then there’s the problem that while what they do here they do very well, it still is similiar to many other projects on the subject. We’ve seen the presentation of suburbia as pack mind judgmentalism, the hot house flower waiting to be plucked (the movie itself spells out its Madame Bovary connection), the ignored and under-appreciated husband living a life of quiet desperation. The execution of these familiar themes is done quite well in Little Children, but that doesn’t make them any less familiar.