Friday, December 29, 2006

Little Children

by Jackrabbit Slim
Having read and enjoyed Tom Perrotta's book, Little Children, I was eager to see the film version, and after much waiting for it to reach the hinterlands, it finally arrived, and I was not disappointed. I will say, though, that the film is not the feel-good hit of the year, and it is quite arid. As with Todd Field's first film, In the Bedroom, Little Children at times feels like a scientific examination of his subjects. This is established at the outset, when a voice-over tells us that Kate Winslet's character likes to think of herself as an anthropologist as she sits with the catty, small-minded mothers at a park, watching the children play.

Winslet's character is the focal point. She has a master's degree in English literature, and struggled to find a place in the land of Goldfish crackers and juice-boxes. She is married to a man who is more interested in Internet porn than anything else. Enter Brad, who is mooned over and called The Prom King by the other mothers. Winslet, though, actually speaks to him, and before long they are banging each other in her laundry room.

Brad (Patrick Wilson) is married to the gorgeous Jennifer Connelly, who would seem to be perfect. But Brad is drawn to the harried, disheveled Winslet. Into this mix enter Ronnie, a sexual offender and pedophile, who has been released from prison and wants to live a quiet life with his elderly mother. But a citizen's "committee", led by an ex-cop, seeks to harass him into leaving town.

What we have here is a very Cheever-esque situation, updated to the age of Oprah. It is certainly not novel for a writer or film-maker to lift the rock and take a look at the nastiness lying below the perfectly-manicured lawns of suburbia. What this film does, though, is take a slightly different view of hypocrisy. So often when you hear the phrase, "For the sake of the children," it's a cover for all sorts of petty behavior. Ronnie, deftly played by Jackie Earle Haley (you won't think of Kelly Leak at all while watching him), is a creep, to be sure, but a human being with rights. It's not easy for an audience to accept this, which creates an unsettling rustle in the theater.

Little Children has copious voice-overs. The narrator sounds like someone in nature documentary. Instead of watch the lion eat the gazelle, it's watch the disaffected suburban mom make a grasp at happiness with the handsome young father. Voice-overs are always tricky in films, because they tell rather than show, but it's clear that Field didn't want to lose a lot of the sterling prose from Perrotta's book. I wouldn't disagree with someone who thinks it's all a bit much, though.

Despite this slight reservation, Little Children is one of the best films I've seen this year, and Kate Winslet in particular gives an outstanding performance.


Blogger Brian said...

I've been struggling with this one since I saw it a couple months ago. There's a lot to like about it - Winslet especially, as you say, is terrific - but there's something that really bothers me about it.

I think in a lot of ways, it seems to mock people for their small-minded fears, at the same time that events are unfolding to justify those fears.

Take, for example, the Ronnie character - the reason that "it's not easy for an audience to accept" that he has rights is because he's every bit the creep and menace to the neighborhood that Larry and all the other neighborhood parents are afraid that he is. He's clearly ill, and he's clearly unfit to be on the streets. Yet the movie is merciless in its mocking portrayal of the paranoia that his presence sets off.

I guess I didn't really think that Larry was humanized at all. He was an unsophisticated stereotype of sex offenders in every detail. He even looked creepy, for crying out loud.

I felt kinda the same way about the oh-so-ridiculous neighborhood moms, and the way they overreacted to Sarah and Brad's initial encounter. Sarah and Brad did end up having an affair, and one that came very close to destroying both of their families. They were both about to run out on their kids at one point. Of course, this is exactly what those moms were afraid of when they shunned Sarah like they did. It seemed to me that they were the anthropologists, so to speak - they read the tea leaves immediately and knew where that was going. Yet the filmmakers heaped nothing but scorn upon them and their silly ways.

It seems to me it's hard to satirize people's fears and stigmas when those fears and stigmas turn out to have a strong basis in reality. It seemed like the movie was saying, "So, you're afraid that the neighborhood creep wants to molest your kids, eh? Well, it turns out that the neighborhood creep actually does want to molest your kids! Ha, ha, joke's on you!"

Or, "so, you want to ostrasize the lady down the street, do ya? Think she's irresponsible and a bad influence, eh? Well, guess what - she's having an affair with another married father, and they're going to run out on their families if fate doesn't precipitously intervene! What an idiot you are for thinking that!"

In short, empty smugness.

12/29/2006 10:19:00 AM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

I can't disagree what you say, but I didn't see that in the film. First of all, those who oppose the existence of Ronnie in the neighborhood speak of wanting him castrated, which is surely an overreaction, and brings up the larger question--what becomes of paroled or released sex offenders? They have to live somewhere. How do we deal with them?

Secondly, I think your point about Winslet's infidelity is explained in her speech about Madame Bovary. While the one mother just simply categorizes anyone who would cheat on a husband as a "slut," Winslet speaks of a hunger for something better. I'm not sure that rationalizes her behavior, but I think it explains it. Do you really think women who cheat on their husbands should be shunned by the community?

I will admit the character of Larry is a bit too broadly drawn. In the book, he breaks Ronnie's arm when Ronnie tries to go to church, which is clearly going over the line.

12/29/2006 10:40:00 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Do you really think women who cheat on their husbands should be shunned by the community?

No, of course not, and neither do I think that any of Larry's actions were right.

I'm just saying that the things that people were afraid of happening, actually happened. And because the movie never really gets deeper than simply mocking its characters for having those fears in the first place, I'm kinda wondering what the point was.

I think a more daring and subversive movie would have then asked the question, "So what?" As in, "Yeah, she's sleeping with the guy. And the funny-looking dude is every bit the predator you think he is. So what?"

But instead, it just takes the view that all these people are idiots. Very easy, and very pointless.

12/29/2006 10:52:00 AM  
Anonymous John C. said...

Brian, I don't feel like the film is mocking any of these characters. It says that what you fear may be real, and what you fear may be not. Either way, what you do with that fear is what counts. Selective impressions is what cinema is all about. These characters are judging each other. However, I do not feel that the filmmakers are judging anyone, and for this I am truly grateful. The feeling when the film ends is in no way satisfying, and my feeling is that this is exactly the point.

12/30/2006 03:58:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home