September 25, 2006

Little Children

Directed by Todd Field Starring Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Based on Tom Perrotta’s New York Times bestseller, Todd Field’s long-awaited follow up to his Oscar-nominated In the Bedroom has the potential to be something really magnificent but never quite gets there. To be fair, Little Children is indeed lovely. But a film belonging to this particular breed of exposé on suburban discontent inevitably recalls the likes of The Ice Storm, American Beauty and Happiness even if it doesn’t pale by comparison.

Residents of bucolic East Wyndam, Mass. suddenly get hysterical over a recently-released sex offender (Jackie Earle Haley) moving into the neighborhood. But this frenzy serves only as backdrop to the illicit affair between the overeducated homemaker Sarah (Kate Winslet) and the ex-jock stay-at-home-dad Brad (Patrick Wilson). Sarah must contend with a bratty daughter (Sadie Goldstein) who refuses to sit in her car seat and a husband (Gregg Edelman) who masturbates to Internet porn. Brad’s wife (Jennifer Connelly) highlights unnecessary magazine subscriptions on his monthly credit-card bill. Among the parents who take their kids to the playground and the pool each day, Sarah and Brad are seemingly the only kindred spirits and quickly gravitate toward each other.

Perrotta’s novels share an unmistakable satirical deadpan, and Jim Taylor did a stellar job fleshing that out with his whip-smart screenplay for Election. While Little Children is occasionally very funny, the overall detached and contemplative tone – due to the third-person narration and Field’s direction – strips away the uniqueness of the source material and renders the film somewhat derivative of American Beauty. Little Children also feels a bit telegraphed, with breadcrumb trail foreshadowing all the way to its neatly pieced-together conclusion.

With that said, Field’s new film is still quite a worthwhile experience due to its complex characterizations and its moral ambiguity. The subplot involving Haley’s sex offender Ronnie truly stands out here, to the extent that it eclipses the central plot revolving around Sarah and Brad. In the film’s best-executed scene, Ronnie goes swimming and sightings of him quickly send a wave of panic across the pool. In another powerful scene, his overbearing mother (Phyllis Somerville) confronts a disgraced ex-cop Larry (Noah Emmerich) who has taken it upon himself to chase Ronnie out of the neighborhood. It’s fascinating how the most reviled characters here completely captivate viewers while the readily identifiable protagonists’ midlife crises seem frivolous by contrast.

© Copyright 2006 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.