Writer-director Todd Field's last important film was 2001's "In the Bedroom," a terrific little movie that explored human relationships, family problems, and consequent conflicts. His 2006 production, "Little Children," attempts the same kind of themes, but this time with mixed results. Depending on your point of view, "Little Children" is an absorbing drama, an exaggerated melodrama, or an outright dark comedy, but in never coming to grips with any of these tones, the film rather diminishes its own good intentions.
"Little Children" has a lot in common with "In the Bedroom" in terms of its serious human relationships, and it also borrows heavily from the Oscar-winning "American Beauty" in terms of its humor. It might seem a cheap shot for Field and his co-screenwriter Tom Perrotta (who based the screenplay on his own novel) to place their story in so obvious a setting as an all-white, middle-class, suburban village--the fictional East Wyndam, MA--since Hollywood has already satirized this segment of society so often, and since filmmakers seem to think that conservative, white-collar suburbanites make easy targets for ridicule (for good or for bad). Well, cheap shot or no, the satiric part of the story works fine. It's when the filmmakers try to change the tone of their satire to one of dead earnestness that the film begins to sound preachy.
Here's the thing: Everyone we meet in the movie is unhappy, everyone has a problem of some kind. The first main character is Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet), a thirty-something mother, unhappy in her marriage. She was an English major in college, which, according to the filmmakers, gives her an intellectual mind, a liberal attitude, and no useful skills. She longs for something more than taking care of a three-year-old daughter and worrying about her husband (Gregg Edelman) and his addiction to Internet porn sites. The other main character is Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), a thirty-something housefather, unhappy as he struggles to pass the bar exam and unhappy in his marriage to a beautiful and successful psychologist (Jennifer Connelly). Brad's wife seems to him more interested in her work and their young son than in Brad. Naturally, Sarah and Brad meet one day and find a mutual attraction that soon blossoms into a full-blown affair.
This troubled-romance part of the story is realistic enough, while maintaining the aura of a satiric soap opera, except for one problem: The movie would have us believe that Winslet's character is a plain-Jane type, dull and unattractive, part of Brad's falling for her because she is so different from his more-glamorous wife. But Winslet is far too pretty to be effective in the role, so as an audience we have to use our imagination.
The supporting characters are either weirdos or stereotypes, both of which work well in the satiric parts of the story, if not so well in the realistic parts. Jackie Earle Haley has a standout role as a pedophile, Ronnie McGorvey, who has returned to the community to live with his mother (Phyllis Somerville) after being released from a two-year prison stretch for exposing himself to a minor. Haley pretty much steals the show, and I would rather have seen the whole movie built around his character than around the more-boring Sarah and Brad. Then there's Noah Emmerich as Larry Hedges, one of Brad's friends, an ex-cop who is the head of a "Committee of Concerned Parents" harassing McGorvey with hate messages and hostile leaflets. Needless to say, Hedges has dark secrets of his own hidden away.
Among the other characters are the typically narrow-minded folks one finds in message movies: guys who live and die by football; mothers who have regimented routines for their children and who want to castrate the pedophile; and a mother-in-law from hell whom Brad's wife, getting suspicious of his behavior, brings in to live with them and follow Brad everywhere he goes. We've seen these bits before, but they're worthy of repetition.
I also liked most of director Fields' simple, straightforward storytelling manner. He eschews the current trendy style of quick edits, bizarre color pallettes, and oddball camera angles for a more old-fashioned method of point and shoot. On only one occasion does he indulge himself with a split screen. But I said "most." Unfortunately, he chooses to use an omniscient narrator (Will Lyman, uncredited) with a mellifluous voice-over to get us into the minds of the characters. This narrator sounds like one of those guys who narrates weighty documentaries on TV (and, in fact, Lyman has done any number of weighty documentaries for TV). At first, I thought the narration was so corny, it was a part of the joke, but the narration continues long into the film and long past the point of its being funny. Maybe Field really meant for us to take it seriously. If so, it was a mistake.
Anyway, I'm sure that Field wants us to see that the world is not black-and-white, good-or-bad, but that so-called "normal" people are quirky individuals after all. The best scene in this regard is Sarah's attendance at a neighborhood book-club meeting, where a group of women are discussing Flaubert's "Madame Bovary." It is both comic and dramatic, with the Flaubert character seeming to mirror Sarah's own dilemma. The book, Sarah tells the group, is about "the hunger for alternatives, and the refusal to accept a life of unhappiness." It's a good summing up of one of the movie's primary themes.
However, at the same time Field is building up good will in the audience, he is undermining his own characterizations and ideas. For instance, the movie is far too long (at well over two hours) to maintain its grip on the situation. Once it makes its points, which is early on, the rest is redundant. The movie is also much too talky. There are too many characters taking up too much time. I've already mentioned that its intentions are ambivalent, its main character too pretty, and its narration too peculiar. Moreover, the movie's intended shocking ending is disappointing and seems to belie the very essence of the story.
So, "Little Children" is definitely a movie of contrasts. Perhaps that is just what life is like, but the movie piles it on rather thick. "Little Children" is rated R for sex and nudity.
The picture looks terrific. From the very outset, one can see that the transfer engineers did their best to preserve every particle of the film's appearance. The movie's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio shows up across my screen at a very wide 2.20:1, and a high bit rate secures rich, deep colors and intense black levels. For a standard-definition DVD, the object delineation is excellent, the overall image is bright and clean, and even nighttime shots display plenty of detail.
The audio has little to do, but reproduced in Dolby Digital 5.1, it does it well. There is an evenly balanced tonal range, with signals well spread out among the six speakers. Bass is not particularly deep, but it doesn't need to be. The surrounds come to life during a few crowd scenes, such as at the community pool, and during a brief rain storm. Mostly, though, the film contains dialogue, and here the midrange excels in its quietness, its silence, and its lack of edge or nasality.
New Line did not treat the movie to any extras to speak of. I'm not sure why; perhaps it was because while critics loved the film, it did not do well at the box office, and the studio didn't want to spend any more money than they had to on its disc release. Or perhaps the studio felt that the audience for the film would buy it with or without a lot of bonus materials. In other words, the studio isn't try to promote anything here but the movie.
English is the only spoken language involved, but there are English and Spanish subtitles. The folks at New Line animated the twenty-three scene selections, but they did not provide a chapter insert. And the only trailers involved are those that play at start-up, for "The New World," "Prairie Home Companion," and "A History of Violence."
The Academy nominated "Little Children" for three Oscars: Best Actress, Kate Winselt; Best Supporting Actor, Jackie Earle Haley; and Best Adapted Screenplay, Todd Field and Tom Perrotta. What's more, the movie received an overwhelmingly positive response from the nation's critics. There is a lot of good in this film.
However, its two most-similar competitors maintained a consistent tone throughout, "In the Bedroom" a serious mood and "American Beauty" a satiric one. "Little Children" tries its hand at doing both and gets into trouble. It is not an exaggeration to say that like its characters, "Little Children" is a funny, confused, enlightening, frustrating, dramatic, pedantic, overly simplistic, yet oddly compelling film. (The "little children" of the title refers not only to the main characters' kids but to the immaturity of the main characters themselves.) It's the kind of movie I admired for its intent while disliking for its ambivalence.
If filmmakers Field and Perrotta had decided just where they wanted their movie to go, they might have given it a chance with a wider audience. As it is, the movie is a flawed work that sparkles only sporadically. Still, when it does come to life, it is fascinating, and that's more than most films can boast.