A bored housewife, an emasculated stay-at-home father, a passionate affair: so far, so clichéd. Yet it is the style and the skilful interweaving of subplots that makes Little Children a masterpiece.
The film opens with a TV news report on the return to the neighbourhood of convicted sex offender Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley). Local residents express their disgust and we learn that a Committee of Concerned Parents has been formed. We cut to a playground where a group of thirty-something stay-at-home moms watch their children play while engaging in mundane conversation. Sarah (Kate Winslet) sits apart from the other women. Thomas Newman’s score begins to play in the background, almost unheard, as the camera slowly tracks in towards a smiling, distant Sarah. Then a narrator begins:
Smiling politely to mask a familiar feeling of desperation, Sarah reminded herself to think like an anthropologist. She was a researcher studying the behaviour of typical suburban women. She was not a typical suburban woman herself.
These first comments, spoken deliberately and softly by a suitably stuffy narrator (Will Lyman) come almost as a shock, an intrusion. Our omniscient narrator will introduce new characters, voice their inner feelings, comment on them, often sarcastically, and even act as commentator in a climatic game of touch football. The language is highly stylised and distances us from both the characters and the action. It is overtly literary and absolutely should not work in a film. But work it does and brilliantly so. In fact distancing us from his characters seems to be director Todd Field’s intention. He wants us to accept these flawed characters as they are. Field shows his characters and their increasingly over-lapping storylines while steadfastly refusing to offer any moral judgements.
At the playground we meet Brad (Patrick Wilson), the stay-at-home father and fantasy figure that the women call the Prom King and, of course, never dare speak to. Brad is feeling increasingly uncomfortable with his wife’s role as breadwinner and fixates on the significance of a jester’s hat that his young son insists on wearing all day but discards as soon as “the boy’s mother” returns home each night.
Brad feels that he has lost his masculine identity. His wife is the breadwinner; he is the care-giver who has failed the bar exam twice. His feelings are emphasised by the subtle, possibly unconscious, humiliations of his wife: she chastises him for not putting sunscreen on their son and when Brad announces his intention to get a cell phone his wife asks “why?” It is this feeling of emasculation that drives Brad to join a local touch football team on a whim – here he is a man among men in a recklessly aggressive, highly physical sport.
We learn that Sarah is unhappy in her marriage. She feels intellectually superior to the other women – she has a Master’s degree in literature – yet clearly feels inferior as a mother. Her relationship with her husband is growing increasingly distant and she is also rather detached from her daughter. The narrator tells us “she’d probably go crazy trapped in the house all day with this unknowable little person”.
Both Sarah and Brad mourn the loss of their younger, happier, freer selves. Night after night Kathy dispatches her husband to the library to study. And night after night he doesn’t quite make it, sitting instead staring in awe at a group of skateboarders jumping in graceful slow motion down a flight of stairs, remembering his own lost youth. One of the main themes of Little Children is the adults’ refusal to accept that they need to grow up. When Brad accepts a skateboarder’s offer to attempt the jump himself he fails – you can never regain lost youth. Eventually all of the characters must come to this realisation.
Brad and Sarah both feel stifled and trapped in their numbing suburban hells. When they meet, an affair is inevitable. Brad even seems surprised that he is interested in Sarah. He compares her unfavourably to his coldly beautiful wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) who has “long legs and lustrous hair and perfect breasts”. What they offer each other is interest in each others lives or, as Sarah will say later, “an alternative”. In an awkwardly comical dinner scene Brad and Sarah obliviously act in supportive husband and wife roles in front of Brad’s immediately suspicious wife. They clearly are genuinely interested in each other’s lives and Sarah even expresses wife-like surprise that Brad didn’t tell her he was a member of the Committee of Concerned Parents. And in this scene Connelly gives a spectacularly powerful, wordless performance as a wave of emotions and crushing realisation wash over her face.
Meanwhile Ronnie, in a nuanced and compelling performance from Haley, struggles to re-enter society. Field’s skill as storyteller is to allow us to embrace Ronnie the sexual deviant, to hope that he will change, to feel compassion for him even as we are repulsed by him. We hope, as his mother does, that he can change his ways, even as we suspect that failure is inevitable. At the same time we begin to care about Larry (Noah Emmerich), the disgraced cop who becomes obsessed with saving the neighbourhood from Ronnie. In what would typically be a two dimensional character, we learn about his back story and begin to understand what is driving him to pursue Ronnie so vehemently, even as his own life falls to pieces around him.
This is a film not afraid of its literariness. The narration, with its overtly descriptive language, frequently feels like a novel unfolding before us. Sarah is seen, time and again, reading. Brad finds a heavily annotated book of poetry in Sarah’s study. She is proud of her intellectual achievements and uses reading as a method of retaining her old self. She does not want to become another mom sitting in the playground day after day in mundane conversation. Later a book group discussion on Madame Bovary becomes a slagging match between Sarah and Mary-Anne (Mary B. McCann), the Alpha Mom of the playground. In a strangely comical scene Mary-Anne uses her interpretation of the book to chastise Sarah for her marital indiscretions. Sarah here has the opportunity to defend the character and herself – she talks about “the hunger for an alternative and the refusal to accept a life of unhappiness”.
While literariness is an explicit aspect of the film’s style, visually it’s a delight. It seems lazy to say so, but the heavy mark of Stanley Kubrick’s influence – Field acted in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut – is clear to see: from the deliberate pacing to the use of narration, the slow Barry Lyndon zooms to the careful distancing of the characters and staunch refusal to judge them. And like Kubrick, Field is a master of visual story telling. Shots are often achingly beautiful and some sequences – the scenes by the pool, the touch football game, the dinner with Brad, Sarah and their respective spouses – are quite spectacular. The film is edited with great precision and, like Kubrick, every shot seems carefully thought out and pre-planned. Field also uses slow motion heavily throughout the film. This lends a slightly dreamy edge to some scenes and emphasises the boredom and detachment that many of the characters feel.
As much as I love it, this film it certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. Its pacing is deliberate, its development unconventional – a secondary character may be introduced in a scene that functions almost as an aside and not heard from again until they enter the film’s story half an hour later. Others may dislike the wordiness of the narration, the resolution of the affair or the loose ends that remain untied. Field does not give easy answers or neatly resolve his characters’ tensions. But for those who can embrace it, the film is a genuine delight – thrilling, funny, emotional and involving drama.
Todd Field, who co-wrote the screenplay with Tom Perrotta, adapting the latter’s novel, directed Little Children as his second feature, following his acclaimed debut In the Bedroom (2001). As a second feature it is extraordinarily accomplished. Alongside the more prolific Paul Thomas Anderson, Field shows promise to become the most interesting auteur director of his generation. We’ll see if this is justified – a much-delayed third film is currently in preproduction.
An earlier version of this piece first appeared on Manalishi Films in April 2012.
© Calum Campbell 2012, Revised 2015.