Kids may say the darnedest things, but adults do far, far worse, according to this amazing Todd Fields film, which Judge Bill Gibron believes remains one of 2006's best.
The sour beneath the suburban calm.
There is nothing more science fictional than suburbia. It's the oasis of the overprivileged, a sanctuary from the realities of urban decay. It's a place for families and a fortress of social solitude. Where once there were neighbors, now there are merely communal cul-de-sacs, residents playing nice under the constant vigil of friendship forced and privacy protected. Here, the rules are indeed different. Lawns must maintain a manicured look while siding should sparkle with a fresh lick of paint. Secrets and scandals should never sully the aura of averageness. Instead, they become the fodder for insinuation and inference, a game only gabbing gossips enjoy playing. But aside from all these stylized mannerisms and idiosyncratic mandates, the main reason these bastions of white flight are so surreal is the single human element that anchors it all. These biological byproducts, these sly symbols of life, immortality, heritage, and hearth instill every element of suburbia with its reason for being. They command the quality of education, the availability of recreation, and the laws that limits what adults can or cannot do. Like a sci-fi story where youth supersedes wisdom or weakness, Little Children dominate the life landscape. And just as Todd Field shows in his remarkable movie from 2006, they can make their guardians do dumb, desperate—and even deadly—things.
Facts of the Case
The suburban enclave of East Wyndham is abuzz with the latest news. After two years behind bars for an act of sexual perversion, child predator Ronnie J. McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley, Breaking Away) is finally free—and living right in their neighborhood. While this stirs up most of the residents, it has little effect on Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet, Heavenly Creatures), a depressed mother who hates her life of social servitude. Desperate to break free from the shackles of maternity, she begins an affair with a failed law student named Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson, Hard Candy). Married to a go-getting documentary filmmaker who works for PBS (Jennifer Connelly, Requiem for a Dream), this bored beefcake longs for his prior days of camaraderie fueled by college football and beer. In fact, he's failed the bar exam twice as kind of an indirect dodge of his looming familial responsibilities. As their assignations become more passionate, and the town takes McGorvey and his well-meaning mother (Phyllis Somerville, Swimfan) to task, the stagnant suburban calm becomes unsettled and dangerous. It's not just the fear of discovery or further criminal acts that disrupts the community. It's the desire to protect all the Little Children that challenges the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable—behavior, even between consenting adults.
Like a vampire hunter driving a stake through the hideous heart of suburban life, Todd Field creates the perfect satiric antidote for a populace gone potty…training. Using pre-schoolers as the suggested source for many of our current obsessions and depressions, the man behind the amazing In the Bedroom lifts the lid off of the barbeque and book club world of suburbia and exposes its shallow fear factors for all the world to mock. Never really ridiculing the young, but definitely taking to task the overindulged parents who place their offspring on a ridiculously high pedestal, Field is out to show how child-rearing destroys individuality and rapes reality of its dreams. It's a strong statement to make in a mainstream motion picture. Film, as an industry, has long celebrated the birth of children as the last-act salve that cures all the crises that came before. Couples falling apart and families unable to relate suddenly strike the right balance when Mom pushes out the puppies. But in Field's adaptation of Mark Perrotta's novel, it's the aftermath that's important. The babies may have shorn up certain elements of a failing existence, but they then become a fulcrum for the constantly shifting extremes of paternity. The joy they bring is overwhelming. The restrictions they require, however, can play like a death sentence.
This is obviously the case for our heroine, Sarah. A mere dissertation away from a PhD, Sarah so loathes her life that she barely wants to interact with the rest of her household, let alone the husband and child within it. This is a women with second thoughts about the whole maternal instinct thing. Holed up in her comfortable study, surrounded by the books that formerly made up her life, Sarah is a shattered soul looking for some healing. It could be emotional, but she'd prefer sexual. After all, her distant husband (so far removed from the picture that he barely appears onscreen) is addicted to Internet porn, preferring to spend his time and passion on someone called "Slutty Kay" than interact with his wounded, needy wife. Sarah views her lot as a punishment, watching days drone on in endless hours of babysitting and reality role playing. She's the housewife, the "mommy," the female half of the old-fashioned dynamic that dictates place, persona, and process. Try as she might, she cannot escape and, sadly, she never can. She recognizes the roadblock she forged when she chose to have a child—and it will be a decade and a half before this domineering distillation of DNA will conceivably be able to function on its own, if then.
On the other end of the spousal spectrum is Brad. He is a man emasculated, an athlete inert, a trained attorney left license-less. While his social standing would seem enviable on the outside—big home, attractive partner, precocious kid—he's drowning on the inside. For him, all the roles have been usurped. He is no longer young and virile. He now has to force his body to conform through endless hours in the gym. He is also not the breadwinner in the family. With her husband unable to pass the bar, his bombshell wife is required to bring home the PBS documentarian bacon. His child indirectly disrespects him, wearing a jester's hat whenever they're together, an almost subtle suggestion of how his father figures into his life, and his days as a college football jock are now a faded memory. Thanks to marriage and the decision to spawn, Brad's dreams have died and he wears the badge of mourning almost everywhere he goes. It's caused him to become detached and glum, taking for granted almost everything in his sphere of influence. But he doesn't really want things to change. He won't study for the bar, knowing that passing it means altering his sorry lot into something that could be potentially much worse—adult responsibility.
By putting them together, Perrotta and Field create the first of two major challenges that will try to rock the surrounding suburban malaise. Unlike the stories of adultery in the '60s and '70s, Little Children is not interested in personal fulfillment or emotional conquest. Instead, it's a testament to the power of freedom—freedom from duty, freedom from conformity, and freedom from rote restrictions and socially acceptable behavior. The minute Sarah starts up a conversation with Brad, her catty friends, all of whom have made this "Prom King" their secret desire, switch off and begin focusing on other things. It's as if this potential couple bursts through one of the seven stifling layers of suburban life and the shockwaves are too unsettling to stand. Similarly, the passion the couple feels when having sex (featured in several smoldering scenes between Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson) tends to turn off the realities of the world around them. Lost in their secret trysts, the problems that plague everyone else—snack time, grocery shopping, regular marital relations—magically disappear between the two. It's almost as if, through carnal contact, they can make the burdens they share somehow seem less pressing.
Within the Brad and Sarah affair, Little Children illustrates how selfishness can salvage one life to the decided detriment of all others around. But it is via the subplot involving convicted sex offender Ronnie J. McGorvey that this movie gets its truest test of merit. You see, fear of the horrors hiding in the outside world is one of the primary reasons that suburbia started in the first place. Like a reverse prison, these well-kept communities—now complete with fences, gates, and private security—are meant to protect the enclosed populace from the wickedness and unpredictability of the rest of society. So, of course, right down into the middle of this familial forbidden zone drops our genitalia-exposing pariah, a mealy-mouthed momma's boy who desperately wants to be good, but can't resist the temptations of tiny flesh. Played to perfection by Jackie Earle Haley and complemented by an equally amazing performance by Phyllis Somerville (as his mother), we see potential harm quietly hindered, perversion put in its place by a desire to remain under the communal radar. Naturally, the present dynamic between perpetrator and populace cannot remain dormant. There will be confrontation and, with said standoff, even more of a potential threat.
The consideration of which poses the biggest danger to society—adult freedom or depraved sexuality—is at the heart of Little Children's dramatics. It's the main focus of all the storylines. When Brad wants to play night football with a group of policemen, his wife sees the arrested adolescence all across his inconsiderate mug. Jennifer Connelly is luminous as Brad's slightly shrewish spouse Kathy. She only wants the best for everyone in her life, but will not stand around and watch her man make a juvenile joke of himself while finances are so stretched. Similarly, Sarah is ignored by her Web porn-preferring husband Richard for one clear-cut reason. Her hatred of everything around her has permeated every element of their family life. It has gotten so bad that she can barely tolerate her doting daughter. A life with such an internalized man is impossible. Together, Brad's and Sarah's failure to conform really threatens the fabric of suburban life. It argues that you don't have to play by the regulatory rules to get what you want. Instead, you can snub your nose at your neighbors and indulge in whatever adult acts you want. Oddly enough, McGorvey represents the furthest extension of this idea. In his rebellion, it's not the conventions he wants to thwart. No, he wants to violate the very foundation of this place—the children themselves.
Field's filmmaking is astounding all throughout this film. He holds on conversations and lets the meaning slowly seep in. He's not afraid to use silence as an exclamation point to the seemingly subtle statements being made. He even adds a matter-of-fact narrator, turning the film into some manner of filmic sociology experiment. Occasionally, the metaphors can scream louder than any Marco Polo-playing brat (the Madame Bovary discussion practically writes its significance on the celluloid) and the brazen bits of comedy definitely come at the expense of what many in the mainstream would see as themselves (McGorvey's visit to the local town pool is a laugh-out-loud moment of non-tempered truth). But part of Little Children's appeal is that it doesn't let anyone off the hook—not the marauding activist who wants to protect the people from the proto-pedophile living down the street, not the meddling mother-in-law who shows up to keep Brad (and his libido) in check, not even the main players in the game of physical escape. The suburban spouses who micromanage their lives into easily remembered subsections don't appear happy; they look like battle weary soldiers settling into a tentative truce. Indeed, Field obviously feels that kids, and the flailing manner in which their safety shuttles aside the rest of human happiness, deserves a small amount of ridicule. Thus the numerous jokes at the expense of overprotective moms and android-like dads.
Thanks to its superb acting, undeniable directorial flair, artistic use of ambient elements (the distant call of a train, that ancient symbol of wanderlust and travel, wafts through almost every scene), and a flawlessly presented narrative, Little Children continues 2006's streak as one of the best years in recent cinema. Field finds so many right beats for his movie, conquering what many could see as sloppy soap operatics and pat plotting to find real depth and dimension for his entertaining exposé. Like the efforts of a bygone era, hoping to remove the mystery and scandal from such subjects as wife-swapping and homosexuality, Little Children wants to take on both the ends and the means. It wants to focus on both the individuals involved and the place they function in. Thanks to decades of playing directly into the worst, most troubling fears of the average nuclear brood, suburbia has become a universe unto itself. Field wants to unfold the carefully creased corners and sow a few weeds amongst the perfectly groomed gardens. Witty, biting, insightful, and epic, Little Children proves that In the Bedroom was no cinematic fluke. Todd Field finds the perfect motion-picture means to get his likeable, lucid points across and this film is the best example of his aesthetic by far. It is also one of 2006's best.
Talk about switching critical gears. How an amazing movie like this can receive such outwardly shoddy treatment from its DVD distributor is mind-boggling. Not in the strictest of technical specs, mind you. No, New Line does the audio and video aspects of this film damn proud. Given an incandescent 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that almost transcends the digital medium, Little Children looks amazing. Colors are bright, details are easily discernible, and the various compositional and framing elements Field uses to explore his ideas are perfectly preserved. From an image stance alone, this release is a masterpiece. Similarly, the sonic elements offered are first-rate. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix is remarkable, giving the mostly exterior film a sense of space and outdoor atmosphere. When the noted train whistle sounds in the distance, the speakers provide effective directional and ambient aspects. All dialogue is clear and convincing, all carefully crafted musical underscoring meaningful and solid. So from a sound and vision standpoint, Little Children is superb.
Where this DVD release really drops the ball is in the added content department. There is not a single, solitary bonus feature or supplemental extra on this disc. No accessible trailers (the only previews offered are those hard-to-skip introductory ads that come before the main menu actually appears), and no EPKs or commentaries. All we are given is access to the various scenes in the film, a set-up screen, and a list of credits. It's just unbelievable. Little Children garnered much critical acclaim, three Oscar nods (for Haley, Winslet, and the script by Field and Perrotta), and a great deal of cinematic analysis. A wonderful two-disc exploration of the film could be created, starting from the source material novel and working up to the run for recognition. Why New Line decided to go with the barest of bare-bones release strategies is just stunning. Not only does the movie deserve better, but it suggests an outrageous double-dip approach that would make this version seem practically pointless. Even worse, if this remains the only way in which Little Children sees a home video release, then a masterful movie is definitely getting a decided short shrift. Field and fans should feel slighted for such a skeletal package.
Like a cross between She's Having a Baby and Blue Velvet, Todd Field's terrific Little Children walks a fine line between satire and savaging. It's upfront and obvious, making its big-picture points in patently broad strokes while saving the sly and the suggestive for moments when the motives are a tad more ambiguous. Even the ending fails to offer the kind of fulfillment we want for the characters. Sarah and Brad both make decisions that seem antithetical to their previous pronouncements, doing things that make us question motivation, reject former feelings, and reconstruct their steamy sex sessions for new interpersonal importance. It could be that freedom failed to provide the release they required or that conformity doesn't feel so bad when accented with an occasional spot of adultery. Maybe it was the kids who created the circumstances that drove their individual choices or the sudden understanding that all the suburban fears actually had a basis in reality. Whatever the case may be, Little Children remains a strident statement of parental pitfalls. Bringing life into this world may be the greatest gift every bestowed on man. But it's clear from this amazing movie that trying to rear it in a place filled with prerequisites is an equally Herculean task.
As to Count 1—the film: NOT GUILTY! Todd Field and his extraordinary cast and crew deserve nothing but praise for creating this remarkable movie. All counts against them are readily dismissed. As to Count 2—the DVD: GUILTY! New Line should be ashamed of itself for not giving this title the proper contextual bonus features it so desperately cries out for. The company is sentenced to 60 days in the presence of the preservationists over at Criterion to learn how to properly treat a masterful motion picture on the digital format. Court adjourned.
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