There is a bucolic, brief scene of restless suburbanite Sarah (Kate Winslet) sitting peacefully under a tree, reading, in Little Children. Her daughter Lucy plays happily nearby as the leaves rustle and the birds chirp. Everything is bathed in perfect light. All of the elements — the camera, the performers, nature, etc. — conspire to make an invigorating, warm shot.
This single scene sums up the overall tone for director Todd Field’s assured sophomore effort. He chooses this image, which moves, languidly, from a tight full-body shot of the serene actress to a longer, more atmospheric shot. As the first image the viewer sees on the menu page of the DVD. It is an evocative, iconic shot that speaks volumes without any words. It is pure, gorgeous ambiance — something Field is shaping up to be very keen on, and very good at.
A leisurely little movie that pits an acerbic script (by Field and Tom Perrota — who wrote the expansive 350 page novel on which the film is based) with a brilliantly mismatched ensemble, Little Children is a rare contemporary film that is nearly perfect in its execution. Stillness in both mood and pace are just as important to the director as lingering close-ups of his actors’ attractive reactions. Field is able to present, believably, a vision of bourgeois suburbia as an almost mythical netherworld. Often, dangerously, the atmosphere here can change on a dime: from playful to sexy to deadly and back again within the same scene.
Sarah is sort of a bad mother. She’s a little selfish about her time. She doesn’t quite connect to her adorable moppet of a daughter in the way she expected to. The film is unafraid to debunk the stereotypes about settling down and being a “mommy”. Sarah would say that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. She left a life of academia behind to marry an older man and take over the pristine, first wife-decorated manse located on a prized plot of land in this snobbish suburban enclave.
The other brittle, embittered young women that hang out at the park with their regimented children treat Sarah to an infuriatingly smug and superior manner every day. Perhaps this is just an obvious sign they are jealous of her, or perhaps they are only talking to her out of pity: Sarah is more than a bit disheveled and doesn’t give a flip about appearances, and why should she? Her marriage is pretty much dead and the only person she sees during the day is Lucy. While the other gals are in full hair and make-up, heels, and perfect pressed little dresses, Sarah goes the comfortable route in shapeless overalls.
They recoil in horror as Sarah fumbles futilely for her daughter’s non-existent snack; trying desperately to save face in front of the group as they judgingly produce nutritious treats for their perfect “little children” from the bowels of their overly-priced designer bags. They viciously gossip about the neighborhood’s newest addition, Ronnie: a convicted sex offender freshly released from prison (the amazing former child actor Jackie Earle Haley).
These scenes at the park (the park is apparently the hub of all socio-political action in the land of the bourgeoisie), in which the humiliating suburban hassle gets inflicted on Sarah relentlessly by this group of harpies stand out, mainly because of the highlighting of the gossipy, demeaning behavior of the bored and unfulfilled yuppie set. These patronizing women are cinematic ice queen cousins to women like Annette Bening’s Carolyn Burnham from American Beauty or Mary Tyler Moore’s Beth Jarret from Ordinary People: spoiled, repressed, and filled with venom. The displaced Sarah can’t relate to their malaise. She believes she is much different from them.
When “the Prom King” (stay-at-home dad Brad, played by Patrick Wilson) starts frequenting the girls’ territory with his son, the fearless Sarah decides to shock the other women by actually speaking to the handsome father. Turns out Brad’s life is not as dreamy as he’d like it to be: even though he is married to the outrageously beautiful documentary filmmaker Kathy (the outrageously beautiful Jennifer Connelly), with whom he has a son, Aaron; Brad has failed the bar exam twice and would rather sit and watch teenage boys skateboarding than study for his third and final attempt at the test.
Fallen cop turned vigilante Larry (the fierce Noah Emmerich) ropes Brad into a secret league of brutish nighttime football players, in addition to forcing him to aid in the neighborhood crusade against Ronnie, who is still a mere specter in the film at this point; he’s just whispered hatefully about.
Brad longs to re-capture his macho youth. His fire, it seems, was snuffed out by settling down in the suburbs. Taking over a traditionally female role, as Kathy becomes the family’s breadwinner, Brad becomes just another version of a bored suburban housewife himself. Little Children seems to say that only stupid people are content with that sort of existence. Brad and Sarah are both very educated people; so naturally, they begin to gravitate towards one another. Eventually, they embark on a dangerous, erotic affair, complete with some raw, realistic sex scenes between the two brave actors.
Forty-five minutes into the film, as Brad and Sarah begin to flaunt their tawdriness all over town, the character of Ronnie makes his appearance into the film, looking every bit the creepy boogie man pedophile that every parent has nightmares about. He is pale and sickly looking, almost transparent; curiously, he resembles bloodsucker Max Shreck in Nosferatu.
The far-from discrete Brad and Sarah have a standing date to meet every day at the community pool. On a bright, hot day when all of the kids and parents are cooling off in the pool, the ridiculously-attired Ronnie (complete with goggles and flippers), struts foolishly into the swimming pool and the camera dives disturbingly down into the water with him, as he creepily, secretly watches the kids moving in slow motion underwater.
It is only a matter of time before he is spotted by the frantic mob of parents; who resemble the villagers who chase after the monster in Frankenstein with torches and a pack of rabid zombies. They openly display the kind of cruelty that leads to trouble. It’s also only a matter of time before Ronnie is the only one left in the pool. The police arrive within what seems like seconds to take the sex offender away from the kids.
What unfolds in the film’s second half is a complex, meditative drama that offers some biting insights on the art routine. The film deftly explores the everyday perversions of those who we think are the most normal (Winslet catching her cuckolded, mysterious husband masturbating in his home office is one of the funniest, most awkward scenes in a recent film). Despite the undercurrent of genuinely funny cynicism running through its acid narration, Little Children still remains a true tragedy at heart; and a tightly-wound, emotionally suspenseful one at that.
At its core, the film is about mothers and their deep, formative bonds with their children. Sarah is jealous of the super-mommy gang, but she doesn’t really want to put much effort into her relationship with Lucy; she’s more interested in escaping her duties into her fantasy world with Brad. Ronnie lives with his fiercely devoted, frail mother May (a scene-stealing Phyllis Somerville); a tough old neighborhood stalwart who believes her son to be innocent as she excitedly sets up a personal ad date for him. Aaron is constantly wearing a jester’s cap around Brad, but takes it off as soon as his beloved mom Kathy gets home from work.
Each mother in Little Children is able to put a fresh spin on the theme of things not turning out quite the way one might have pictured, and each finds a way of coping and soldiering on. Tough senior citizen May is forced to physically defend her adult son from bullies in her own home, while Kathy is quietly more enamored of her job and son than she is of her clearly depressed husband. Sarah turns out to be almost as sad as the rest of them: she cruelly ignores her daughter to imagine a life with Brad. As the film builds to a breathtaking climax, she is seen in the dark park, late at night, alone with Lucy; waiting for a romantic getaway that is never going to happen.
Winslet’s skillful handling of these almost wordless scenes is masterful in what she is able to convey through her eyes: Sarah is going to be abruptly thrown right back into her boring old routine come early morning, like all that transpired before had never happened. It is a vague ending (complete with one shocking Shakespearean-level catharsis), and Field leaves a lot of hanging plots’ resolutions up to his viewers; who should easily be able to put the pieces together thanks to the cast’s lived-in, seamless performances and Perrota’s lean, eloquent script.
Following the success of 2001’s critical darling In the Bedroom, Field proves again that he has a gift for capturing, strikingly, the complexities of small town melancholy. Little Children also demonstrates his clear gift and affinity for the art of guiding his actors to giving gloriously quiet, devastating performances. Sissy Space, Marisa Tomei, and Tom Wilkinson were all rewarded with Oscar nominations for their work in In the Bedroom; while Haley and Winslet were nominated for their work here — Winslet earning her fifth career nomination.
From the smallest supporting role, to the powerhouse leads, Field imbues each character with soul and flavor; as he does with every other technical detail of the film. His eye for the minutiae of the everyday is impeccable.