07 January 2007

current cinema: Little Children

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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[1]. 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[2] 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.

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[1] 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.

[2] You may remember him from The Day of the Locust (1975), The Bad News Bears (1976), and Breaking Away (1979). Or, you might not.

20 comments:

Sam said...

I didnt think that In the Bedroom was actually that good, but hope this new film, from Todd Field will be alot better.

lucas said...

why not? it's generally regarded as one of the best of the decade

Anonymous said...

I felt that Little Children was too heavyhanded for its own good, especially with its metaphors and symbolism.

I really liked In the Bedroom though. I enjoyed your write-up of Field's use of sound in a post months ago.

lucas said...

see, i thought the symbolism was mostly under-played, the occasional sound of a train passing in the distance, for example

Anonymous said...

i find it to be more than a passing curiosity that we end up seeing the same films more often than not at almost the same times

hm.

kept thinking, during this one, that Kubrick would've been proud of Todd not shying away from this commentary and characterization at any given point. nor Altman, I realize belatedly.

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

I agree on Winslet, but overall the movie struck me as just a more expensive episode of Desperate Housewives. With bigger stars. What bothers me is that classy soap operatics, as this basically is, is sold as having some deep literary thematic content. What was really surprising here? That bored, unhappy people have affairs? That a mob mentality rules in suburbia? That repressed people prey on weaker people? I can see this for free every day on the Lifetime Channel. I did like the affair between Winslet and Wilson, the nice quiet gestures they used to experience the renewal of passion. It's nice to see a little mature eroticism on screen. Field has a good visual sense. But the story is paper-thin and predictable. I wonder why critics fall so often for these type of movies: Is it just because so much else is bad that anything remotely adult looks like a revelation by comparison?

Anonymous said...

So...i take it that you didn't get the commentary on the voyeurism of American society and the channels it creates?

As for its predictability, I'm not sure anyone in the theatre that I saw it in would agree. I saw the knife coming myself, but judging from the later gasps, few others that night did. Often more important than what's going to happen in a film, though, is how it's going to happen, and I'd say Field lined himself up a whole series of "how" on this one.

I think the fact that you were able to appreciate the how more when it during the erotic scenes than during those that required something beyond couch tatering says more about the viewer's state of mind than the film or filmmaker's.

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

No need to get nasty. Yes, I got what it was about. It had some nice moments, but I didn't think it added up to much more than that. Sorry. Suburbia and its discontents are not exactly an original topic. And this movie doesn't expand upon it, in my (and only my) opinion. For what it's worth, I think the knife is cheap melodramatics. The book is actually much more incisive, so to speak, on that character; the movie softens it all up. I'd actually like to see a movie about what happens when the affair is over, when the parties go back to their spouses and are still miserable. That would be something new.

edwardhenry said...

I'd be very curious to know what you thought of the ending, which was mentioned with some dissatisfaction in the last two posts. I too was disappointed by its turn to melodrama, to the point that I now found that I'd tried to forget about it in order to form a generally favorable view of the movie (two months later).

Anonymous said...

I could have added a punctuation mark wink, I suppose, but I was not being nasty. Why would I take film more seriously than people?

State of mind and audience-screen relationship, though, has been a large part of the ongoing conversation on contemplative cinema discussions organized by HarryTuttle (and partially sabotaged by Google!) The thought of Desperate Housewives crept upon me when the narration first started, but I left my mind pretty open and it went away quickly. I felt that the reference point was no more mistake, though, than the contemporary focus on how sexual deviancy is treated in the U.S., and how often those with minor offenses are gouped into the same category as those more harmful. I haven't read the book or any discussion on Field and Perrota's goals regarding currency, though, so it's just a hunch.

edward, i honestly can't remember the ending that well. the resolution, yes, but for some reason i can exactly recall the opening shot. for the closing one, i'm at a loss. that should tell you something.

i also remember thinking that the moment where Lucy's looking at the lamppost was odd -- like a writing device that wasn't applied to film with any real translation.

lucas said...

johanna,

was your screening insanely sold out as well? it isn't often i have to sit in the 4th row for an indie character drama.

tlrb,

i've not seen any of Desperate Housewives (or the Lifetime channel, for that matter), so i can't comment on the film's similarities, except to say that i can't imagine Housewives to be this frank and honest, at least not on network TV. i could easily be wrong, though. as to your critics question: part of it is that we so rarely see this sort of thing anymore, at least not from a studio, so we're happy to get it when we can, but i'm holding the line on my belief that it isn't paper-thin and predictable. certainly i respect your opinion, though. anyone who goes by a Peanuts name can't be too far wrong about anything, i suppose.

as to this comment, I'd actually like to see a movie about what happens when the affair is over, when the parties go back to their spouses and are still miserable., I'll defer to your expertise, since you've read the book. If both Wilson and Winslet both go back to their respective spouses at the end, and we've not been shown anything that would lead us to believe their relationships have improved at all, then can we not assume there will still be a degree of misery? One thing I found interesting (and this will answer Edward's question, as well) was how the ending was at the same time redemptive, eye-opening, and fatalistic, depending on which character you were looking at. In our key storyline, though, I see no reason to believe the affair might not continue, or that they might not each take up with someone else. I highly doubt they've now got some renewed fidelity or anything like that. I like how Field didn't try to answer that question, or put a ribbon on that aspect of his film.

ok, i've written way too much at the moment...if you'll excuse me, i'm going to go drool over the iPhone

Anonymous said...

aye.

had to sit in the 5th at one of the larger Forward Avenue theatres. And then, to make things more perfect, two couples came in late, sat on either side of me, and the one on my left proceeded to talk through much of the last third.

When the projectionist cut the credits short, the man on my left threw up his hands and said, "What? No credits?" I said that maybe that was their way of punishing those who talked during the movie.

I've only seen one episode at Jerome's, where they used to watch Housewives, but unless something has drastically changed, i think you have things aright.

lucas said...

yet another thing that bugs me about watching films at the cinema

when i saw The Good Shepherd there was not one, but two(!) different people who felt compelled to update their spouses on the proceedings, which wouldn't be so bad if they weren't about 5 minutes slower than the rest of us when they said stuff like "she's a spy!"

the audience-screen dynamic is interesting. am I more prone to like something like Little Children because I've been reading a lot of Andre Dubus and was a massive fan of In the Bedroom? perhaps. but I suppose it's equally possible that TLRB is more likely to equate it with Desperate Housewives because it apparently goes in that direction, thus he might have a negative reaction.

i dunno, just a thought

Anonymous said...

that's probably part of it. there's also the "read the book" factor. i read Killings long after i saw In the Bedroom and was glad, even though Field was tremendously faithful to the story.

a lot of people prefer to read the book first; and, although i have no concrete faith in either method, when i heard that LOTR was being made, i decided to read the books first just in case. Jackson didn't disappoint, but because of certain characters that they couldn't fit in (like Tom Bombadil) it turned out to be better that i had.

i think at the end of the day, it doesn't so much matter whether you watched or didn't watch a tv show or read or didn't read a book first -- it's what you bring to the movie that counts. there have been not many but a couple of films i wish i had been more open minded about the first time around.

my account's acting up...

lucas said...

ok, i'm confused. is this TLRB?

if so, i'm reading that Sheffied book. so far, i like it

johanna said...

No, that was me. For some reason, I thought you would follow the flow of the conversation and just discern that on your own.

Let's see if this time, your blog will let me log in under my Google account...and not turn my comments into "anonymous" ones ex post facto.

Barry said...

Do any of you have a pic of Jackie from the movie?

lucas said...

i don't, but i'm sure they can't be hard to find

James said...

I LOVED In the Bedroom, and was enthralled with the first 75% of this. Then it just... sort... of... ran out of gas. I didn't buy the resolution to the sex offender plot and was sort of hoping for more than

*SPOILER ALERT*

Guy gets hit on the head and changes his mind. Still, an excellent film overall.

Jose Luis said...

I was reminded of Desperate Housewives, too, but only because of the "molester with a sick relative" plot. I enjoyed the movie and the ending was great.

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