Little Children

Ugh . . . I still don’t know what to make of this film. I walked away feeling queasy, uncomfortable and frustrated. I can’t rightly dismiss it because it reveals such great promise, but Little Children’s bizarrely alchemical mix of earnest melodrama (think Eugene O’Neill) and black comedy/satire (A.M. Homes, Tom Perrota) just didn’t add up for me (imagine Douglas Sirk directing an episode of “Desperate Housewives” and you get the idea). Still, Todd Field can direct. There is this one montage sequence at a local swimming pool that is so beautifully shot and cut; it is easily the most elegantly edited sequence of the year. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Field isn’t afraid to slow things down; he palpably lingers on moments (I’ll never look at Hummel figurines in the same way again) and the way he uses rhythm to generate specific moods is exemplary. Additionally, Field’s confident utilization of long takes and beautifully orchestrated tracking shots as well as his eye for unique and dynamic compositions makes him one of America’s most exciting young filmmakers. He is also generous with actors; each and every performance in the film is bold and exploratory (Phyllis Somerville I’m talking to you). So why didn’t I like the film?

First, Little Children chronicles rituals and social practices which feel completely alien to me—perhaps even synthetic. I’m sure stuff like this goes on in America but the film’s dramatic narrative is operatic—overblown and histrionic—while the cinematic style is cool, detached, even bemused (the omnisciently wry voice-over narration doesn’t help). The basic conceit is that a small New England village just outside New York City is outraged by the return of a pedophile (Jackie Earle Haley) who has moved into his mother’s home after a brief stint in prison for indecent exposure. Haley’s arrival sets off a storm of protests even as the spectator begins to realize that life amid the green, well-manicured lawns offering safekeeping to the film’s upper-middle-class characters is less than ideal. Kate Winslet has an MA in literature for God’s sake; how did she end up with a strange child in a strange land surrounded by strange ladies (or should I say harpies) who reign over the local playground. Winslet’s husband, a successful brander of consumer products, gets off on online porn, masturbating to the antics of one “Slutty Kay” morning, noon and night. Patrick Wilson is the “Prom King” who can’t pass the law exam and, instead of studying, gazes longingly upon the local teen skateboarders for hours on end. Wilson’s wife (Jennifer Connolly) is a severely beautiful documentary filmmaker (and daughter of privilege) currently exploiting the emotions of a young boy on camera while micro-managing the household budget (and her husband) to the point of obsession. Former cop Noah Emmerich accidentally shot a kid at the mall a few years ago and can’t let go of the post-traumatic stress; he’s been “retired” from the force and pathetically lumbers about searching for friendship and community (and when such desires elude him he takes his angst out on the local sex-offender).

The film appears to suggest the world to be full of hypocrites, and Haley’s character is little more than a device to point up how monstrous everybody else is as well. I guess this sounds good enough but tonally the film is a mess. Field needs to find better source material to live up to his promise as a director. Perotta’s satire doesn’t work when taken deadly serious (I tried to read the novel months ago but couldn’t get past the second chapter) and then in moments where Field appears to be embracing the Cheever-esque condemnation of suburbia, the film falls flat. It is a film in search of the correct means of expression. Is it a melodrama, is it a black comedy? Are we meant to sympathize, to be repulsed? Who knows? It’s hard not to be anything but smug.

Unlike Little Mary Sunshine, I do think this film to be smug to the point of repulsion. Yes, Winslet delivers one of the best performances of the year; she is nothing short of lovely (truly, incandescently, emotionally and rawly so), but mostly you sit in judgment of these characters; nothing they do or say feels believable or truthful. Sure, the satire circles around issues worth exploring but nothing on display feels genuinely observed from real life. Here’s an example. There is a sequence between Haley and a wonderfully game Jane Adams that makes one squirm in ways that Sacha Baron Cohen could only dream, but, to be honest, the scene (and it’s a doozy) doesn’t make any sense. Haley plays a pedophile not a psychopath and the cruelty on display (and Haley’s abject fearlessness) just overwhelms the senses, throwing the drama way off-balance (and setting us up for a climax worthy of Wagner).

David Edelstein reminded me that “Field acted in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and now, as a director, seems bent on pushing past the boundaries of realism but with no clear idea of what’s on the other side.” He’s right, I think, Field is a singularly talented filmmaker who still doesn’t yet know how to best channel his gifts. He’s someone to watch, but Little Children is best left behind for now.

One thought on “Little Children”

  1. Wow, you nailed this. I finally watched it–or, to be honest, watched for 20 minutes then put on the subtitles and sped-read the whole thing at 4x pace, slowing for the occasional bravura scene (most involving Jackie Earle Haley)–and I thought I’d pop up and react to Jeff’s post, but he says everything perfectly.

    The film’s so tightly and artfully structured it becomes a kind of diorama, pretty but vacuum-sealed–to the point of an aggravatingly non-Thornton-Wilderish voiceover carefully nailing shut our reading of scenes and actors. Sure there are these amazing actors, these astonishing compositions and an occasional burst of vital filmmaking, all for naught, gasps in the airless strictures of the film’s big plot and big points. Compare this adaptation of a Perrotta novel to Alexander Payne’s Election, which takes a similarly obvious social scene and satire but makes it biliously alive and surprising. I felt every beat and pulse of Little Children‘s storyline like a dull metronome, so all that virtuousity on display fell on deadened ears.

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