A film review by Craig J. Koban
2006, R, 138 mins.
Sarah Pierce: Kate Winslet / Kathy Adamson: Jennifer Connelly / Brad Adamson: Patrick Wilson
/ Ronald James McGorvey: Jackie Earle Haley / Larry Hedges: Noah Emmerich
/ Richard Pierce: Gregg Edelman Directed by Todd Field Written by Field and Tom Perrotta, based on Perrotta's novel
Sarah Pierce: Kate Winslet / Kathy Adamson: Jennifer Connelly / Brad Adamson: Patrick Wilson / Ronald James McGorvey: Jackie Earle Haley / Larry Hedges: Noah Emmerich / Richard Pierce: Gregg Edelman
Directed by Todd Field
Written by Field and Tom Perrotta, based on Perrotta's novel
“…she was not happy, and never had been. Why was life so unsatisfying?…But if somewhere there existed a strong, handsome man with a valorous, passionate and refined nature…why is it not possible that she might meet him some day?”
- From MADAME BOVARY
Sarah is a rather odd homemaker. She’s a mom living in a seemingly perfect suburbia with a young daughter and a successful husband. However, she does not genuinely love being around them. She sees her husband as distant and flakey and her daughter could just as well be from another planet. She has difficulty relating to them on any level. Sarah also has a Masters degree in literature and was just short of her PhD.
She’s smart - perhaps a bit too smart - in the way that she is able to pontificate about the themes of books like MADAME BOVARY to her neighborhood book club. “Madame Bovary is not a feminist because she committed adultery, “ she explains at one point, “she’s one because of her spirit.”
Perhaps she thinks this as a way to help her cope with her own adulterous affair, which she has been embroiled in behind everyone’s back.
It began rather simply and innocently enough. Sarah (Kate Winslet) has one of those obligatorical movie meet cutes where she exchanges loving glances at a man with odd fascination and a bit of perplexion. One day in the park she talks to her friends about the so-called "Prom King" that comes to the park everyday with his three-year-old son. The ladies find him mysterious and attractive; they like to talk about him a lot, but they don’t even know his name. Sarah bolsters up some courage and tells her friends that she will go over and talk to him. They then up the ante. If she is able to get his phone number, they will give her five bucks. She accepts the deal and proceeds.
Sarah approaches the Prom King. He’s a nice, affable chap that seems to be a loving and caring father. He’s also a hunk that makes the park women droll. Sarah soon becomes surprised with how candid and magnanimous he is towards her and how she is able to get small little nuggets of information about his life. She learns his name (Brad, played by Patrick Wilson) and that he went to law school, but has failed the bar exam twice. His heart is not in it, but his wife’s (Kathy – Jennifer Connolly) is. She has a job as a documentary filmmaker while Brad stays home to be a Mr. Mom seven days a week. He seems content with his job raising a son while the wife works. She does not.
Sarah and Brad develop a quick bond and a nice rapport. Sarah likes Brad and the feelings are instantly reciprocated. Before she leaves him she reveals the wager that she has become embroiled in. Feeling frisky, she tells him that it would really make the ladies “go nuts” if he gave her a hug in front of them. He obliges. Then, she goes for broke. “If you kiss me,” she asks him, “Then that will really set them off. Brad does not seem to think twice. The two lock lips quickly, but it’s a turning point in their lives. They fall in love right there.
Thus begins the hook for Todd Field's sophomore film, LITTLE CHILDREN, which as a companion piece to his first effort (the great IN THE BEDROOM) demonstrates his sharp and astute abilities to quietly and patiently develop three-dimensional characters that walk narrow moral roads. He also deals with material that is both sensationalistic and – at times – unnerving and disturbing.
His approach here is kind of intriguing. He creates a view of suburban New England life that looks ideal and normal, but he hints that at the heart of this quintessential look at the American family lies something more creepy and unsettling. Obviously, tales of suburbia that go against the grain by showing their darker sides is hardly nothing new (the Oscar winning AMERICAN BEAUTY did the same to great effect), but Field here displays a great amount of ingenuity and and patience with letting his story slowly unfold and allows his characters to kind of effortless weave through one another. The film is hard to sit through at times, but he also manages to infuse small instances of black comedy in-between to make the proceedings a bit easier to sit through. Honestly, aren’t self-deluded adulterers who think what they’re doing is right kind of darkly funny?
The luridness of the story could have made LITTLE CHILDREN lower itself down to the level of a torrid, seamy, melodramatic soap opera. However, Field and his co-writer, Tom Perrotta (who based the screenplay on his book of the same name) aims for a more nuanced and low-key approach to the film. What’s truly interesting is the way that they make every character worthy of our empathy, no matter how crazed or depraved they really are. Sarah and Brad are kind of disingenuous characters for how they feel that the only way to escape the monotony of their daily lives is to have a secret affair, but Field and Perrotta give their characters a subtle humanity that makes they more completely realized. These are not one-dimensional cretins who are too stupid to realize the beautiful families that they already have. Sarah and Brad are flawed personas that almost kind of invite our willingness to root them on to make the right choices.
Perhaps even more astounding is the film’s handling of its most sickening character. Ronald James McGorvey (in an absolutely chilling and creepy performance by Jackie Earle Haley) is a sex offender who has just been released from jail. He has problems with dealing with his sexual urges. He was caught flashing a child. Once released he is sent to live with his mother (Phyllis Sommerville) and is ordered not to come anyway close to parks or public places where children are present. Interestingly, Ronald is highly self-aware about his sick, sexual predilections: he knows he’s a pervert. His mother does not think so. She thinks that all he needs to do is find the right woman. “Why wouldn’t a woman want to go out with you, “ she asks him at one point. “Because I am not a nice person," he dryly responds.
Achieving a life of normalcy is difficult for him, especially when a crazy ex-cop named Larry (played with effective paranoia and angry confusion by Noah Emmerich) decides to create a group whose job it is to scatter the town with leaflets with Ronald’s picture on them. The film is fascinating in how it deals with the whole arc of the relationship between the bitter and angry Larry and the pathetic Ronald, the former that goes out of his way to hate the sex offender. Surely, Ronald’s actions are inexcusable, but Larry is also a loser in the way that he tries to antagonize Ronald and his elderly mother. Ronald did wrong, but does he not deserve a second chance? The way Larry publicly mocks and chastises him and the time he spends watching his every move is kind of equally sickening. He's just as sinister as a stocker.
LITTLE CHILDREN is always a strong work in the way that in paints these tragic figures candidly and frankly. The film overwhelmingly is about the affair of Sarah and Brad and how they let their feelings of isolation within their marriages help feed their lust and longing for one another. Sarah sure has reasons for wanting to dump her husband (another of the film’s trashy figures in the sense that he becomes addicted to porn sites and is later caught by Sarah masturbating to one of his favourite sites…never a healthy sign of a good, stable husband). Brad’s spouse, on the other hand, does not have the problems that typifies Sarah’s husband, but she is an icy and dictatorial figurehead in Brad’s life. She constantly tells him what to do and this suffocates him. Yes, she is gorgeous and would make any man happy, but Brad wants more than looks; he wants a woman that expresses interest in him for who he is. Sarah appeases his sensibilities in this regard. His marriage is too restrictive and domineering. Like Sarah, he needs release.
Perhaps the film’s strongest asset is the way all of the actor’s don’t get into a rut of playing their roles with broad and simplistic strokes. This goes for everyone, from the adulterers to the sex offender. Winslet is so magnificent at honing in Sarah’s sense of inner despair and emotional chaos that she is able to generate our understanding without our instant sympathy with her plight. The same is also true for Patrick Wilson, who plays a role somewhat similar to the one he played in one of 2006’s best films, HARD CANDY, albeit to a greater depravity. In that film he also played a character that was morally reprehensible. In LITTLE CHILDREN he again displays his underrated range at portraying unsavory characters that are layered and textured. With his work in both films, Wilson could take claim to break out performer of the year.
The best performance by far has to go to Jackie Earle Haley, who is almost unbearably slimy and repugnant as the sex offender. Wisely, Haley does not stereotypically play him as a horrid caricature. He’s sick, to be sure, but it becomes increasingly tricky to pin point whether Ronald is a character that understands what he has done and will live a good life or if he will re-offend at some point. There is a tremendous level of tension and pathos with his character in the sense that underneath his meager exterior façade lays a caldron of perverse violence. You really never know whether he is going to engage in his repulsive impulses or not, and that is a testament to Haley’s abilities. A date he goes on late in the film harkens back to a similar disastrous one in TAXI DRIVER in the way that they both end in a horribly awkward fashion. His recent Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor was well deserved.
LITTLE CHILDREN has some weak points. Firstly, the film utilizes an ostentatiously obvious voice over narration by an unnamed party to tap into the specific thoughts of the characters. The approach here is unique (LITTLE CHILDREN is one of the rare book adaptations that tries to feel like a piece of literature with its expositional asides in the third person), but it distracts from our overall involvement in individual scenes. There is really no need for editorials on what the characters are thinking at any given moment (which drains out any option of the viewer inferring their own conclusions as to the thoughts of the characters).
The film also underwrites the character of Kathy and marginalizes Jennifer Connolly’s abilities. This is even truer with the character of Sarah’s husband, who is too quickly established as a fiend that prompts Sarah on her affair. After this he is oddly never heard from again until later in the film, almost as if the screenplay forgot he was a character. He shows up when it is convenient for the script. Finally, LITTLE CHILDREN does not always find the right equilibrium between all of the story arcs. At times it’s difficult to tell whether or not the film wants to focus on the Sarah/Brad affair or on the Larry/Ronald confrontation. The film’s lack of focus makes the film’s nearly two and a half hour running time feel even longer.
LITTLE CHILDREN may have some difficulty with managing some of its disparaging story elements and characters, but Todd Field’s second major feature film still emerges as a fairly rich character driven drama about troublesome characters in emotional tailspins. Its stories of adulterous lovers and sex offenders may be too loathsome and cringe worthy for some filmgoers to sit through. However, Field – to his credit – is able to craft the film with a hypnotic and vivacious allure. LITTLE CHILDREN is not a film told with predictable strokes, nor does it play out exactly as perceived. Instead, it deals with challenging issues and themes and reveals them in excruciatingly morose detail. What results is a film that is not easy to digest for modest viewers, but it nevertheless is shrewdly written, brilliantly acted, dryly funny, and disturbing in how it shows the landscape of American suburbia as being tainted and dreary. Perhaps the biggest impression the film has is in its constant dealing with one issue: are its characters worthy of redemption? By not directly answering that conundrum, LITTLE CHILDREN – in the long run – becomes an absorbing and complex film.