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.