The Theory of Chaos

Friday, January 26, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - Little Children

Full review behind the jump

Little Children

: Todd Field
: Todd Field & Tom Perrotta, based on the novel by Tom Perrotta
: Todd Field, Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa
: Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Gregg Edelman, Sadie Goldstein, Ty Simpkins, Noah Emmerich, Jackie Earle Haley, Phyllis Somerville

Why’d you do that?
I don’t know.

That exchange is the heart of
Little Children, a movie which is about our darkest urges and the way they propel us beyond the flimsy fence posts we stake out in life. But for all that is painful and damaging in this adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel about suburban anomie, it is also, I cannot think of a better word, enchanting. Director Todd Field’s previous film In the Bedroom also found a way to put mesmerizing focus on the tones of domestic misery, I cannot think of another American filmmaker working who balances loneliness and beauty with such nervy control – he always knows just how long to swell up a balloon of feeling before popping it.

The road into this upper-class neighborhood was paved by
American Beauty – the distinction is that Beauty had an overt theatricality to it; it was, from director Sam Mendes’s stage roots, a lushly-designed presentation of these feelings, and quite effective. Little Children wants to take us inside these frightening mysteries of want, and still find the means to bask in the way sunlight looks on a summer day by the pool.

It is about many other things as well – how our smallest and most thoughtless gestures can have bottomless meaning to others, how a life without overt drama or danger only stimulates the mind’s need to create some, and most of all about children – how perplexing they are, and how our responsibility for them becomes overwhelming when magnified by the ways their half-formed personalities express themselves. An unseen narrator with a hypnotically-soothing voice says of housewife Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) that the reason she takes her little daughter Lucy (Sadie Goldstein) to the park every day is because otherwise “
she’d probably go crazy, trapped in the house all day with this unknowable little person”.

It is one of the best films I can ever remember about children simply being children. Not saying cute catch phrases or radiating some sanctified innocence; but, day by day, sorting out the world with their clumsy appendages and clumsier vocabulary. I do not know how the filmmakers were able to put these children alongside these adult actors pretending to be their parents and achieve such a natural relationship – there is a tight but almost assumed way in which a child grips its father, this movie sees it and replicates it.

It is not just between Sarah and her daughter, but Brad (Patrick Wilson) and his son Aaron (Ty Simpkins). Brad is a stay-at-home husband whose wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) makes documentaries. This is another way in which the movie is about the dramatic form in our lives – in one telling scene we watch a child talking about a tragedy, see Kathy’s reaction, and then cut away to reveal she’s simply watching the scene on a monitor in an editing suite. The way her editor non-chalantly asks her about food obliterates the momentary spell that both she and we were under – that we were actually there, feeling this child’s grief.

But Kathy puts bread on the table, and her relationship with Aaron is not unhappy – she’s encouraging him to study for the bar exam, he’s already failed it twice and prefers watching the skateboarders by the library and playing in a touch football league. It’s just that they have this tiny, needy wedge between them, stunting every conversation and sharing the bed at night.

Brad, who is fit and handsome, takes Aaron to the same park every day, where the housewives Sarah sits with dub him “The Prom King” and titter little imaginings amongst themselves about what his story must be. Sarah at last approaches him, and a connection is made that both sense is taking them in an unavoidable direction. Noting the change in the other wives’ attitudes when a fantasy starts to intrude on reality is educational – are they judging her or acting out their resentment at their own inability to address their dissatisfactions?

And while what in any other hands would be a rudimentary drama about infidelity carries on under Field’s impassioned vision (a forbidden urge in a laundry room has never looked more irresistible), there’s something much more sinister pulsing underneath. A middle-aged man named Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley) has moved back in with his mother (Phyllis Somerville), having served a jail sentence for exposing himself to a minor.

McGorvey hates himself and hates the desires he cannot control. This is not an easy portrait of pedophilia, but it is not without sympathy, and Haley’s dedication to the performance is a marvel. In a way we’re not sure which is harder on him – that neighbors fear and harass him, posting fliers with his picture everywhere, or that his mother has such unshakable faith in him, and tells him he’s still a “good boy”.

On one miserably hot day he tries to go swimming at the community pool, and the scene ends up looking like something from Jaws. You cannot blame the parents for their fear; but you cannot blame him for wanting to cool off like everyone else, and yet, can he be trusted? The impossibility of that question haunts, even as we’re soaked in the beauty of the blue water, and the almost tranquil mayhem of dozens of children free with their joy.

At one point, when told his extreme actions are scaring the neighborhood’s children, a man with good intentions but bad feelings shouts “They SHOULD be scared!” It is always difficult to calculate when we are ascribing too much holiness to a child’s innocence, or when we are not allowing it enough room to evolve. We are meant to be their protectors, teachers and champions, so their fears can be the right size for them until they gain strength. The monster under the bed is exercise for the monster in the pool. All they understand about him now is that he makes Mommy scared, and that’s far more unsettling because it’s beyond their imagining.

Little Children
is about all sorts of exercise – jogging, masturbation, the construction of soap opera fantasies and the self-indulgent trips we take outside the boundaries of good behavior. We have ways of convincing ourselves that each is more than what it really is, but if we didn’t have them, cocooned in our enormous, tasteful houses, what would we do with ourselves then?


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