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Little Children Review

Todd Field's Little Children is a strange film, and I don't say that lightly. There's a lot to love about it, but there's also a lot of weak structures. Imagine a gorgeous steel bridge with a few bolts loose. You put too much pressure, it'll collapse harder than a pedophile in daycare (any architect reading may wish to correct me). This film very nearly collapsed, and it's Field's keen understanding of relationships that temporarily held it together.

Speaking of pedophiles, there's one in this film. In fact, the film opens with a news footage concerning a recently released offender named Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley) moving back in with his mother (Phyllis Somerville) in their suburban home, which sends a rife through the parents in the community. One would assume that given this aspect, coupled with the ambiguous title, the film is about child abuse. It's not.

Rather, it's a two hours long Desperate Housewives episode.

The movie is based on Tom Perotta's novel of the same name, co-adapted by Field and Perotta himself. Kate Winslet plays an unhappy housewife named Sarah. Sarah's already dull marriage goes further unsteady when she catches her husband masturbating to a porn site, wearing online-bought panties on his face. As her repressed feelings catch up to her, she quickly forms a steamy affair with Brad (Patrick Wilson), a dashingly handsome stay-at-home Dad whose busy documentary filmmaker wife (Jennifer Connely) kept robbing him of sexual satisfaction. Sarah and Brad's trysts caused suspicion among the other housewives in the community, all of whom idolized Brad as "The Prom King", but were all too conservative to even entertain the idea of making acquaintances. Complicating matters are Sarah and Brad's children, who become good friends as they get used to playing with each other while their parents bump uglies in the attic.

Meanwhile, Ronnie battles his inner demons, as he has to avoid his own temptations. His mother tries to cure him by setting him up with dates his own age, and he makes an effort, but Ronnie's sexual urges don't go away so easily. It's a fascinating character that evokes sympathy, but never hides his disgusting fetish. We feel sorry for him because Ronnie and his mother are under the constant torment of Larry (Noah Emmerich), an ex-cop on a fanatical crusade to drive Ronnie away with his one-man Watch Group. Larry himself is a tormented soul, discharged from the force after he shot a kid dead because he mistook the kid's toy gun for a real one.

Throughout these ordeals, an anonymous voice narrates the film. It does everything: from setting up scenes, to giving back stories, to even informing us what the characters are thinking about. A lot of times it works well when used ironically for a laugh, a la Arrested Development, but often it is intrusive and annoying when used to enhance a dramatic moment.

These two different stories barely have anything to do with each other. There is no direct link, besides the fact that they take place in the same neighborhood, and Larry and Brad being in the same nighttime football league team. Since the film feels way too long for such a story, one wonders if they could have split it up into two 90-minute films.

However, the two stories do have a common theme. This isn't a film about pedophilia or infidelity. It's a film about normal people making wrong choices in life. There are many little details about each character that would be impossible for me to list, how they constantly make wrong choices just because of impulse and convenience. Brad, for example, who failed the bar exam multiple times after graduating from law school, chooses to watch teenage boys skateboard instead of studying, and gives up on becoming a lawyer. He doesn't even realize that he's unhappy as a jobless Dad who lets his wife wear the pants, and instead rationalizes that what he needed was to fall in love with another woman. The title Little Children, of course, refers to these characters who think they are adults and manipulate children in their own ways, but really they are lost kids themselves.

Todd Field devised a strange satiric atmosphere. There's a whiff of surrealism in the suburban setting, but nothing truly out of the ordinary occurs. The film paints a suburbia that's mundane with the gossip and the soap opera scandals, yet brimming with dark potentials, making the Desperate Housewives comparison even more potent. Hey, doesn't that show have a humorous yet semi-annoying voiceover narration too?

Unfortunately, the film is confused as to what it wants to be. In one instance, it would treat a development as a serious, contemplative drama - yet in another, it would spin it as a satire. It's an empty film, where you follow one interesting character after another as they make boring mistakes back and forth for two overlong hours, all leading up to a melodramatic conclusion that's so ridiculous, it's neither satisfying nor does it make any sense.

Little Children has a collection of very good actors who give it their best, but they're drawing water from a dry well, and the result is just not there. Very fun in small doses, but ultimately a drab film that lacks passion.

"Little Children" opens October 6, 2006 and is rated R. Drama, Romance. Directed by Todd Field. Written by Tom Perotta & Todd Field. Starring Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Connelly, Kate Winslet, Noah Emmerich, Patrick Wilson.

Oct
06
2006
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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