Several years ago, I had the privilege of meeting and hearing a reading from Tom Perrotta. The author, who has written books such as Joe College, The Wishbones and Election (later turned into a Reese Witherspoon movie), has a rare gift. Using common-but-eloquent language, Perrotta is able to perfectly convey the inner lives of his everyday characters, bringing their personal dramas vividly to life. That quality no doubt appealed to filmmaker Todd Field, whose Oscar-nominated 2001 drama In the Bedroom explored similar territory. Field directed (and co-wrote with the author) Little Children, based on Perrotta’s novel of the same name.
Kate Winslet stars as Sarah Pierce, a desperate housewife whose husband Richard (Gregg Edelman) is more interested in online porn than he is in her. Sarah spends her days taking daughter Lucy to a local park, where she half-heartedly engages in gossip with the other moms. The object of their speculation is Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), a mister-mom type whom they dub “the prom king.” The handsome Brad brings his little boy to the park, talks to no one, and seems to be not entirely happy in his role as primary caregiver. Sarah is the only one who musters up the courage to speak to him; when he reciprocates her friendliness, she then suggests they hug in order to freak out the other women.
It’s clear that there’s a bond here. Brad is no happier in his marriage to documentary filmmaker Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) than Sarah is in hers to Richard. Yet there’s something more. Both feel wildly out of place in the suburban parent lifestyle. It’s not what either of them dreamed, and it makes them both feel constricted. Believing themselves to be kindred spirits, the hug turns into a friendship, which eventually turns into a full-fledged affair. Their daily meetings at the park or the community pool make them feel as though they are breaking free of their domestic confines and really living again.
Meanwhile, there is a subplot in which a registered sex offender named Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley) moves into the neighborhood, setting all the parents into a panic. Ronnie lives with his mother and seems to be attempting to turn over a new leaf, yet he is quite open about his sexual deviancy. Brad’s friend Larry (Noah Emmerich) is a former cop intent on spearheading a campaign to drive Ronnie off the block.
Suburban malaise is not a new topic for dark satire, but Little Children makes it fresh and, more importantly, relevant. It asks us to consider whose behavior is worse – the neighborhood pervert or the “typical” parents who clandestinely cheat on their spouses. Without ever being too blatant, the story is somewhat critical of its characters’ hypocrisy; by showing it without reservation, the film mocks their belief that immorality can somehow be justifiable so long as it’s not in the open and doesn’t break any laws.
At the same time, Field and Perrotta have empathy for the characters. As the story progresses, we see that Sarah and Brad are, for various reasons, good people who happen to be very unhappy. Somehow, their lives haven’t turned out the way they expected, and neither of them can see clearly enough to change things for the better. There is something heartbreaking about watching them struggle for happiness when it’s their own inability to properly define that emotion that trips them up. Little Children looks at whether the affair is really liberating them or whether they are just deluding themselves. (I love the way the ending provides that answer.)
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Little Children is that it’s not at all movie-ish. This is neither a sitcom nor a melodrama. Instead, it feels like real life, inhabited by real people with real problems. If this story actually happened, this is exactly how it would go down. One of the best scenes involves a crisis at the community pool; Field handles the sequence so authentically that it becomes almost as tense as anything you’d ever see in an action movie, yet with much more disturbing consequences.
Some credit for the film’s success must go to the cast. Winslet again proves herself a versatile actress playing the troubled Sarah, and up-and-comer Patrick Wilson really makes a name for himself as Brad. His final scene must have been tough to play; done incorrectly, Brad’s motivation might not have made sense. Wilson captures it perfectly, defining in a single moment the core of his character’s malaise.
Then there’s Jackie Earle Haley, who was a big star back in the 70’s after appearing in The Bad News Bears (one of my all time favorite films). Haley tinkered around for a while, then dropped out of acting altogether. With Little Children, he makes a triumphant comeback, making Ronnie scary in an unexpectedly sympathetic way. It would easy to play Ronnie as a villain, but the actor instead finds a way to play him as a flawed man whose predilections are as horrifying to himself as they are to everyone else. This is a superior performance.
Little Children isn’t driven too heavily by its plot. Instead, it’s one of those films that you settle in to. The slice-of-life approach makes you feel like a neighbor on that block, watching all the comings and goings of everyone else. It rattles you with the idea that we’re all potentially Sarahs and Brads (and, possibly, Ronnies) unless we keep our heads screwed on straight and find our life’s passions in the right places.
( out of four)
Little Children is rated R for strong sexuality and nudity, language and some disturbing content. The running time is 2 hour and 15 minutes.
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