A highly original portrayal of suburbia’s seedy underbelly.
It would probably be a pretty fair assumption that Todd Field is less of a romantic, more of a cynic. His acclaimed 2001 work, In the Bedroom, took a fairly typical happy family in suburban Maine and shook their world to the core.
In Little Children, the setting is a small suburban community filled with young couples just starting out in the world. The mothers meet and gossip at parks, playgrounds and swimming pools while the husbands are off at work. They seem happy on the surface, but in reality their mundane lives are pacified by playful fantasies of the hot new dad at the park or the combined rage of child molester Ronald James McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley) moving into the neighborhood. Even Brad (Patrick Wilson), the hot dad in question, is unhappy at home with his gorgeous but controlling wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly).
Sarah (Kate Winslet) doesn’t really fit in with the other mothers. She is the outsider of their group. On a dare, she approaches Brad at the park. To shock the prudish mothers, she kisses Brad, leaving the women gap-jawed. Of course, the innocent joke sparks a mutual interest between the two. Sarah’s own relations with her husband Richard (Gregg Edelman) have grown distant, his sexual preference recently turning to the digital variety. Finally, we have Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich), a disgraced police officer who is tormenting McGorvey. The surprisingly sympathetic sex offender is quickly losing his mind trying to deal with his perverse desires while his desperate mother tries to make him normal again.
All of the events of Little Children are played out with a narration track akin to that you might hear on a National Geographic documentary. It’s jarring at first, but ultimately adds to the almost voyeuristic view into this simplistic world that holds so many twisted secrets within.
Field’s direction is taut and smart. He has a way of capturing so much with the minimal amount of dialogue. From one interaction with the mothers at the park, you already know a great deal about Sarah. She is an outsider even within her own family. Brad has his own personal issues, longing for the childhood he never had. He and Sarah share a common bond, but it doesn’t really seem to be love. It’s more just a welcome alternative to their current unhappiness.
The sex scenes deserve a mention because they are the kind you don’t normally see on film. They are real and in your face, with bright lighting leaving little to the imagination. You don’t get the usual soft focus glow we are so used to seeing when sex is portrayed on the big screen. This isn’t porno by any means, but it’s more raw and realistic then we are used to. It adds to the overall feel of the story Field is bringing across.
It’s no big surprise to say that Kate Winslet is great again. She has long since been and remains one of the finest actors of her generation. You instantly identify with her and sympathize in Sarah’s plight. Patrick Wilson plays a part not entirely unlike Jeff Kohlver, whom he portrayed earlier this year in Hard Candy. Here he’s not the child molester, but he’s just as lost and unhappy as that character. Brad has everything, but it’s not the everything he truly desires.
Jackie Earle Haley, who most will likely remember as the infamous Kelly Leak of the late 70’s Bad News Bears series, is a standout as the deeply haunted Ronald James McGorvey. He knows his desires are wrong, but he can’t get out of his own head. He tries to please his mother and do right, but he just can’t bypass the voices in his head. As the constant torture by the community and particularly Larry Hedges grows, you can’t help but sympathize for this gravely unsympathetic character. Haley’s performance is stellar and heartbreaking.
Little Children is not for all tastes. It’s twisted and heck, even kind of evil. Field explores a world that many aspire to as the vision of true happiness and turns it on its head. Like many recent exposes the world of suburbia such as American Beauty or TV’s Weeds and Desperate Housewives, Little Children shows how life in these communities can be just as sick, evil and rife with unhappiness as the city lives these people are supposed to be escaping. It’s not necessarily a cautionary tale, but more a look within a surface utopia that doesn’t really exist.