December 3, 2006 -- “Little Children” has a lot of things working against it, but it is such a strong drama, with such fine acting performances, and the plot has such nice little twists, that it overcomes its handicaps and comes out a winner. This film has all the earmarks of an “American Beauty” type of art film about moral decay in the upper class suburbs, right down to the sonorous narrative voice of Will Lyman (of the PBS show “Frontline”), commenting godlike, on the follies of the characters in the film. This is the sort of thing I usually hate, but it works here thanks to the writing and directing talents of Todd Field (“In the Bedroom”) and a fine cast of actors. The early part of the film even has a cheap kind of made-for-TV look to it, but don't let that fool you. Once the film gets its dramatic hooks into you, the tension levels are cranked up to incredible highs. Just when you think you know where the story is headed, it takes an unexpected turn.
Kate Winslet of “Finding Neverland” stars as an unsatisfied housewife, Sarah Pierce, who finds out her husband is having Internet sex with aid of the alleged thong of an online personality known as Slutty Kay. After finding this out, she sets her sights on the neighborhood stud, Brad Adamson (played by Patrick Wilson of “American Gothic”), the man the neighborhood women call “The Prom King.” Brad is also frustrated and suffers from low self esteem. A househusband, he takes care of his child and is supposed to be studying for his bar exam, but really doesn't want to be a lawyer.
Eventually, Brad and Sarah have an torrid affair. Sarah begins to see herself as a kind of feminist Madame Bovary, trying to escape the boredom of her suburban life and loveless marriage. There are several references to Madame Bovary in the film, mostly in a scene of a book club meeting in which Sarah defends her feminist interpretation of the story. Is Sarah a fool, or a woman with an adventurous spirit. Perhaps she is a little of both, as is Brad. If anything, Brad's love for Sarah is more idealized than Sarah's love for him. Brad is like an overgrown, spoiled kid who is clueless, but sincere in his feelings. Sarah is more sophisticated, but also clueless about what she really wants. You think you know how this doomed love affair is going to end, but the plot avoids the usual move clichés with some interesting twists. Both Brad and Sarah get so carried away by their affair, they almost lose track of their children. In the end, their children's desires cannot be ignored.
The other main character in the story is a pedophile, Ronald James McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley of “All the King's Men”), convicted of exposing himself to children. He is the object of a vicious one-man posse, an ex-cop named Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich of “Cellular”). Larry spreads flyers all over town warning parents about McGorvey and harassing him by shouting threats outside his home, where he lives with his elderly mother, May (Phyllis Somerville of “Swimfan”). Larry talks Brad into joining a football team with his friends on the police force. Brad rediscovers joy in his life by playing football and his affair with Sarah. Larry, however, has a dark secret about his early retirement from the police force, which comes to the surface.
There is a huge pool of underlying violence and tragedy suspended over these characters like a sword of Damocles. Several characters in this film are playing with fire and the conflagration could start at any time. The suspense in the film gets very powerful as it moves along. The actors all turn in superb performances, led by Jackie Earle Haley, who plays the tragic character of Ronald James McGorvey. He plays it just right. He's not a victim, although he is to be pitied. There is a scene in a car with a woman during a date when McGorvey turns from a likeable character to a disgusting self-centered pervert in a heartbeat. Haley's anguish in one climactic scene and his devastation later in the film are very moving. Haley's performance is a tour de force, one of the best of the year. The other actors are also spot-on in their performances, including Jennifer Connelley as Brad's wife who has drifted away from her family through her work, as a documentary filmmaker, hmmm.
This entire cast of characters is a kind of ship of fools sailing off to a wreck, but the film treats each character with some sympathy and a dash of humor. You don't get the feeling that Todd Field and co-writer Tom Perrotta (based on Perrotta's book) are looking down on these foolish characters in a detached, godlike and unsympathetic way. You sense a certain fondness for the filmmakers have for their flawed characters. I like this approach better than the aloof approach that some filmmakers (such as Hitchcock, Altman and Kubrick sometimes show) have where they seem to view their characters in much the same way a scientist views bacteria under a microscope. In a sense, Field uses both approaches. He uses a less detached approach in the cinematic sense, and a more detached approach through his use of off-screen narration.
This is a very moving film with some excellent performances. It achieves high drama in a fairly unremarkable suburban setting without resorting to the usual melodramatic devices (like putting children in danger, or relying on random acts of violence to provide targeted tragedies). It is also an honest film with believable characters that does not depend on arbitrary or unlikely plot developments to achieve dramatic tension (as American Beauty did). This is a standout film in a year when most films are mediocre. This film rates an A.
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