Thursday, May 10, 2007

Little Children and Their Children

I missed the premiere of Todd Field's film Little Children (New Line, 2006, R) at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. It appeared to have had a fairly short run when it was released last fall much to my disappointment. But it has now been released on DVD.

Little Children is a small, quiet but subversive film from the director who made In the Bedroom (2001). It explores the wounded psyches of two lonely married (but not to each other) lovers: Sarah (Kate Winslet), an educated but frustrated stay at home mother of the precocious Lucy, a lovely pre-school girl, and Brad (Patrick Wilson), the ex-high school football hero who continues to fail his Bar exams, the father of Aaron, a small boy the same age as Lucy.

Their first meeting is unsettling: Sarah is dared by a trio of beady eyed soccer moms to ask for Brad's telephone number in the playground that they all frequent. Brad is known, with a mixture of derision and barely concealed lust, as the "Prom King" by the women. Sarah takes the dare and takes it a step further by kissing Brad full on the lips as the three mothers scramble frantically to remove their respective children from this "disturbing" sight.

This brief but sweet encounter stirs in Sarah an overwhelming desire to seek out Brad at the local pool and the affair begins. Sarah, an obviously loving but awkward and scatter brained mother, is shown in contrast to the annoyingly ultra-organized suburban mothers in the neighborhood: she repeatedly forgets Lucy's snacks for the playground, advises Lucy to pee in the pool in order that she not miss the opportunity to talk to Brad, and, against common sense, never compels Lucy to use a car seat or a stroller because the child objects to them. Brad appears equally loving but lacking in direction: preferring to spend long summer days with son Aaron and his nights watching teenage skateboarders practice their technique while his wife Kathy (the frosty and convincing Jennifer Connelly), a documentary filmmaker, thinks he is in the local library studying for the Bar.

Sarah and Brad's spouses appear to be decent enough people (well maybe not Richard, Sarah's husband, who surfs for Internet porn with a thong wrapped around his face that was purchased from "Slutty Kay"'s porn site) but you understand the illicit couple's compulsion which is fueled by boredom, lust, a sense of dislocation in the stultifying suburbs and a not so subtle desire to wound their respective partners.

Todd Field, the director and co-screenwriter with the book's author Tom Perrotta, understands that it is the small inexorable things that sometimes drive husbands and wives apart: the imperceptible advance of middle age and the fading of our youthful powers, the lack of fulfilment in one's career, the sometime boredom of parenthood. These factors, added to the inhospitable inhabitants of their suburban community, seem to push them together almost not of their own volition. Like children themselves, they appear to have little self control, no sense of the inappropriateness of things and situations.

As if the underscore the lethal nature of suburbia, a subplot surrounding the presence of Ronnie J. McGorvey, a sex offender (played with convincing creepiness by Jackie Earle Haley) who has returned to this childhood home to live with his doting, over protective mother, seems to underline the unexpected failures of parenting even as one's child becomes a disturbed and frightening adult such as Ronnie. The film underscores the inability of the characters to, at times, control their sexual impulses, and, the deadly consequences of a blatantly aberrant individual confronting a seemingly homogeneous community.

An extended and over elaborated reference to Madame Bovary and its unfortunate heroine Emma in Sarah's book club augur that things will not end well. It's too pointed and clumsy a reference - of course, Sarah will identify with Emma, how is her situation any different? But the ending is eerie, unsettling and very much what you would expect from director Todd Field.

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