We’re all miracles. We live knowing that all we love could be taken away and we keep going anyway.
—May (Phyllis Somerville)
You ever think about the term “homeland security”?
—Larry (Noah Emmerich)
“It’s like having an alcoholic work in a bar. They don’t mix. They shouldn’t be together.” This judgment, concerning pedophiles and children, is uttered on TV by an anonymous interviewee. She lives in East Wyndham, Massachusetts, where a convicted sex offender is now living with his mother, having served his prison term. He’s watching the TV report about the community uproar caused by his return.
In this first scene of Little Children, Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley) looks trapped. The camera hovers behind his head, so he’s a silhouette, stuck between your gaze and the glare of the TV image, an image that’s all about how much his neighbors fear him, or more precisely, fear his uncontrollable desires. His face remains unavailable here, but as the camera pulls out, you hear the tick-tocking of the many clocks his mother has collected on shelves in the TV room. The sound is steady, pounding, increasingly loud, like the inside of Ronnie’s head.
If you conclude from this brief introduction that Ronnie’s the “time bomb” here, you’d only be partly right. And your assumption may be informed by U.S. TV’s current deluge of child predator stories (Chris Hansen, SVU, Mark Foley, the Amish country shootings). Ronnie will be pushed to a certain limit in this movie (actually, more than one), and he will respond terribly, though not the way you might guess. That’s not to say Little Children is surprising; it offers a tangle of typical dread-and-desire-in-the-burbs melodramas, where young parents feel frustrated by their already-mapped-out futures and act out in ways that make them seem more childish than their children.
The melodramas are laced together by a third-person narrator (Will Lyman, of PBS’ Frontline), whose detailed, dispassionate observations make clear the thinking of characters who don’t articulate it for themselves. Ronnie, for instance, can’t speak his pain, and so the narrator observes it for him, as he also notes Ronnie’s sole good fortune, a mother, May (Phyllis Somerville), who takes her responsibility for her child seriously. She doesn’t know quite how to solve the problem he embodies; she knows Ronnie’s done wrong, but forgives him. Still, she has hope. When he tells her he has a “psychosexual disorder,” May suggests he seek a legitimate girlfriend in the personals (he doesn’t see this happening: “I don’t want a girlfriend my age, Mommy, I wish I did”). At the same time, May is strained by having Ronnie home; a concerned parents group has started posting flyers around town to warn of his presence, as well as spraying graffiti on her walkway and front door. May struggles to protect her child, and he struggles to feel like he deserves her unconditional love.
Come to find out the spray-painting “group” consists of another childish adult, a very angry, single-minded retired cop named Larry (Noah Emmerich). While his fears and desires are almost unbearably jangly and raw, he’s enough of a bully that he gets the (unthinking) support of high school friend Brad (Patrick Wilson). Now a stay-at-home dad studying for his third try at the bar exam, Brad takes his young son to the park to play with the other little children. And so the melodrama thickens. Called the “Prom King” by the moms who frequent the park, Brad seems both to appreciate and resent their ogling. When Sarah (Kate Winslet) finally approaches him, he’s initially intrigued (“You’re the first person here that’s ever talked to me”) and then charmed, when they make a sudden, unconsidered decision to kiss in front of the suddenly alarmed and nervous moms, who gather of their children and scurry from the area as if from a violent crime scene.
Brad and Sarah are the most prominent “children” in the film, pursuing fantasies that have been dashed by their diurnal lives. He’s married to a self-sufficient documentarian, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), who brings their son into bed with them at night so she can admire his perfection as he sleeps. At work she interviews a boy whose father has been killed in a mortar attack in Iraq, her face pensive while she runs the scene through her editing system. “There’s something in this family’s story that really got me,” she half-explains to Brad. The loss is monumental, of course, but it is also material, perhaps even noble. Whether she believes it or not, the son sees his father as protecting him, protecting the “homeland” in need of security.
Brad, meantime, is quarterbacking a football team Larry’s assembled, coming home at night banged up and feeling manly. Kathy sees his enthusiasm as immature, sees Brad again as the boy she married, and not the man—or the lawyer—he’s supposed to be by now. Brad finds a sort of solace with Sarah, who is in turn in need of attention. Her husband Richard (Gregg Edelman) keeps himself occupied with a porn site (“Slutty Kay”), from which he orders a pair of red-and-white panties to wear over his face as he jerks off (“Maybe a sniff or two,” notes the narrator, “would hurry things along”). On discovering Richard’s infidelity, Sarah is dumbfounded, even as he accuses her of not respecting his privacy.
For Sarah, who never quite completed her PhD in English lit, Brad poses a semblance of romance. When a friend invites her to join her ladies’ book club to read Madame Bovary, Sarah initially begs off; in college, she read it as a “misogynist text.” Now, however, it reveals layers and layers of passion. Emma’s “tragic flaw,” Sarah sees now, is that she wants her freedom from an oppressive marriage, in a universe where she’s condemned to settle. “It’s about women’s choices,” she declares. Madame Bovary is “reclaiming her sexuality.” The blond across the room sniffs, “Is that a nice way of saying she’s a slut?”
It’s a point. And yet, Sarah needs to see her romance as sincere, fulfilling her childhood dreams. “There’s something beautiful and even heroic in her rebellion,” she tells the ladies, her own sincere but also deceptive face huge in close-up. Sarah can’t tell her non-friends she’s having an affair, of course, as that would be scandalous, but she can feel it for herself, and know that her analysis, as an English major, is perceptive and acute. The film cuts to another tryst with Brad, who resists her efforts to picture and so, compete with Kathy. She’s a “knockout,” he admits, “but beauty is overrated.” The narrator explains: “Brad had meant this to be comforting. Only someone who took his own beauty for granted could say something so stupid.”
In fact, Brad and Sarah are caught up by similar self-delusions, each wanting to achieve a youthful desire, never met and so, still pulsing and real-seeming. They spend their summertime afternoons at the public pool, their children, like most, entering into a friendship ordained by their parents’ convenience. During one such afternoon, their stories intersect briefly with Ronnie’s. He arrives at the pool, dons his flippers and snorkels, then slips into the water, his fishbelly white form scrawny and scary. As parents recognize him, they scream and flail their arms, beckoning their children, who scramble from the water like the kids in Jaws. The cops arrive to remove Ronnie from the premises. And so the children are protected.
Surely, Little Children submits, children are at risk each day. And Ronnie is not only or even primarily a victim of the parents’ hysterical vigilance, demonstrated by a personals-ad date he has—at May’s insistence—with Sheila (Jane Adams). She’s a young woman as shattered and immobilized as he is, but rather than aligning them, her particular damage only makes her Ronnie’s perfect victim, a “child” who is scared enough not to tell and old enough that he won’t be arrested.
This is the catch and the claim, in all these melodramas: the lines between adults and children are poorly defined. Adults are repeatedly irresponsible and not responsible, they remain children even as they take care of their children. Parents pursue juvenile desires, trampling others to do so, while citing the “protection” of children as the ultimate and unassailable rationale. If Little Children is pedantic and sometimes smug in its judgments, it is also painful.