Friday, November 17, 2006


Written by Todd Field and Tom Perrotta
Directed by Todd Field

Writer and director, Todd Field has a special talent. He has a knack for making his audience squirm in their seats while their stomachs turn. He is not a master horror filmmaker but rather a minimal dramatist with a keen understanding of the peculiarities of human behaviour. I left his latest film, LITTLE CHILDREN, feeling like I might throw up, just as I had when I left his first and last film, IN THE BEDROOM. Only this time, I left with more than just feeling that I had been emotionally hollowed; this time I left feeling puzzled. At this point, I would ordinarily explain briefly what LITTLE CHILDREN was about but that is a task I cannot do briefly. Put simply, without grasping any of its scope at all, LITTLE CHILDREN is another slice of life picture about the banalities of suburban existence. The mommies meet in the park on a daily basis and ogle the one single dad amongst them as their kids run amuck. Husbands turn to internet pornography or other women to get the fixes they stopped getting from their wives before sitting down to dinner with them. And this particular neighborhood welcomes back a former resident, fresh from his stint in jail for exposing himself to a minor, by plastering every post on the street with signs that ask, “Are your children safe?” Field’s timely reveal of the story elements and skillfully vigorous visuals draw you in to the raw unraveling of his characters, gracefully played by Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson and Jennifer Connelly. LITTLE CHILDREN is fascinating and compelling without having any clear reason why it is either of these things. You may ask yourself where this is all going when you watch but you won’t care to know the answer.

Life gets stale when you aren’t paying attention or even when you’re just trying to master the juggling act. Life is also very good at throwing another ball into the mess when you’ve just gotten the hang of juggling three. On one day, in the park and on a dare, Sarah Pierce (Winslet) introduces herself to Brad Adamson (Wilson). She has wagered five dollars with the other mommies that she can get Brad’s phone number. Both Brad and Sarah are married but that doesn’t factor into this game. At least it doesn’t until the bet somehow goes too far and the two kiss. They catch themselves and each other completely off guard. Sarah is married to a man she doesn’t love and has a three-year-old daughter for whom she has more distaste than love for. Brad has not been able to pass the bar exam since finishing law school and spends his evenings away from his wife (Connelly) watching teenagers skateboard when he’s supposed to be studying. Their kiss is meant to taunt the other mommies but instead it cracks their worlds open to reveal new possibilities. It isn’t long before they meet again and it isn’t long after that until they end up naked in Sarah’s laundry room. Given what an inattentive sap her husband is, it is a joy to watch Sarah send Brad signals, showing off her new bathing suit at the public pool or asking Brad to rub lotion on her back. It is also exciting to watch Brad reluctantly respond to these signals. He has a stunning and brilliant woman in his life and yet he navigates towards Sarah. It isn’t love that is growing between them but an energy that affirms to each that they are in fact alive.

LITTLE CHILDREN’s secondary plot is also brilliantly executed but adds a level of depth to a film that was already dug pretty deep to start with. When Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley) moves back in with his mother (Phyllis Somerville), there is outrage amongst the residents of this suburb at the “pervert’s” arrival. Whereas Ronnie’s return defines the period in which Sarah and Brad’s affair takes place, it also makes the film seem as if it were trying to tackle more than it should have. The abuse Ronnie endures from some of the locals encourages sympathy for him but he is not reformed. Tying both plots together seamlessly, Ronnie violates his parole and, with flippers and snorkel in place, crashes the public pool in the middle of a heat wave, while Sarah and Brad flirt carefully in the shade. Ronnie lusts for all the tiny legs treading in the water until he is discovered. Amidst hysteria, all the children exit the pool into the arms of their parents and they all stare horrifically as authorities escort him out. What happens next is the perfect example of the dark humour that runs throughout LITTLE CHILDREN. Panic turns back into play in a split second as all the children jump back into the pool and the parents resume their previous conversations. Is Ronnie’s presence in the neighborhood truly causing anyone to lose sleep or is it just the drama that they all love? Crave? Need?

It was only after I left the theatre that I was able to reel in all my thoughts on LITTLE CHILDREN. A conversation in a yellow cab led me to see that the key lies in the title. As Sarah runs from the responsibility of having a daughter, as Brad plays football with his buddies when he should be studying, as Sarah’s husband surfs for porn while he’s at work, as Brad’s wife purposefully drops her spoon on the floor so she can look under the table to catch her husband playing with Sarah’s feet, it becomes clear that every one of these adults is doing the exact same thing; they are all acting like little children.

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