07 January 2007
current cinema: Little Children
starring: Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Noah Emmerich, and Jackie Earle Haley
written by: Todd Field & Tom Perrotta, from the novel by Perrotta
directed by: Todd Field
R, 130 min, 2006, USA
Todd Field's suburban drama Little Children opens with the news that Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), a sexual deviant, has been released and is now living in the quaint little Massachusetts town. This development mobilizes a group of concerned parents, led by former cop Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich), and becomes the topic of the day for the small group of mothers who's children play together in the park. One of them suggests the pervert be castrated--a view not uncommon in the town--even though he did nothing more than expose himself to a child. Regardless, castration isn't nearly as important as the other recent development. Mainly, that the good-looking Brad (Patrick Wilson) has returned to the park with his son. On a bet, Sarah (Kate Winslet) introduces herself to Brad, and before long they form a friendship over the daily trips to the park and, later, the pool. Neither of them is happy in their respective marriage, and before long, an affair has begun.
Little Children is the second feature film from actor-turned-director Todd Field, the first being the sublime In the Bedroom (2001). Based on that and the paragraph above, it should come as little surprise that Little Children is not a film to be taken lightly. The potential audience for it is small, and it requires a certain temperament to stay with the story long enough to discover its potential power. Which is to say this is a film that expects a certain amount of cinematic and literary maturity from you and refuses to hold your hand while you catch up. This is a good thing. Field does not repeat himself; he does not hammer you over the head with symbolism. He trusts you are on his wavelength, or at least can get there quickly. If not, well, there's probably a screening of We Are Marshall (2006) down the hall.
Little Children is a film more ambitious than In the Bedroom in every way, as Field has clearly gained confidence in his abilities as both a storyteller and a visual director. The shots are more dynamic, the camera movements more purposeful, the narrative choices stronger. But, is it a better film? Truthfully, I'm probably a bad person to ask, as I have a certain attachment to In the Bedroom, which was filmed ten minutes from my hometown and includes radio broadcasts from WQSS, my employer at the time of the filming. So, I'm a little biased. But, I wouldn't argue either way. Both are powerful films from an exciting new director willing to plumb depths few will approach. To say one is better than the other would be counter-productive. I only bring it up as a frame of reference, an example of just how good Little Children is.
This is not all Field's doing, even though his is clearly the unifying influence. The performances are strong across the board. Kate Winslet adds another great performance to her resume, and Patrick Wilson acquits himself as more than just a pretty face, but the strongest turn comes from Jackie Earle Haley, the recently re-discovered child actor who plays a deviant. Haley brings an effeminate vulnerability to the role that makes you cheer for him to overcome his past, while at the same time being terrified of what he might do if someone actually gave him the chance. This is a common theme in the film, as the storylines and the characters are so real, so complex, and the sense of morality so believably muddled, that near the end of the film, when it appears something has gone terribly wrong, you can easily imagine ten to fifteen things that could happen--ranging from the inconsequential to the horrific--and could fit perfectly into the larger film. That sort of dramatic potential in the final minutes of a film is not only rare, it's genuinely scary. Just like real life.
 Not that exposing yourself to a child isn't a terrible thing to do, but in the world of sexual deviancy, there are worse things.
 You may remember him from The Day of the Locust (1975), The Bad News Bears (1976), and Breaking Away (1979). Or, you might not.