Friday, February 02, 2007

Little Children (Field, 2006)

After the hugely enthusiastic response to his directorial debut, In the Bedroom, a gripping and emotional drama about a family torn apart by tragedy, director Todd Field has made a surprising left turn and delivered Little Children, which (despite what the Golden Globes and the Internet Movie Database would have you believe) is a rather extraordinary comedy. If, like me, you go into Little Children expecting another harrowing, naturalistic drama, there will be a rather significant adjustment you will need to make early on in the film as Field lays out a new set of conventions. However, once Field’s offbeat tone is established, Little Children becomes a darkly humorous and thoroughly involving take on suburban dissatisfaction and hypocrisy.

The central characters of Little Children, played by Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson, are young parents living at an age where the idea of settling down seems not only daunting, but somehow incompatible with one’s sense of self. Although they have reached the typical age to begin the process of rearing children, they retain a personal vision of themselves that is trapped in young adulthood. Having now lived long enough to see the passing of a generation, they are reluctant to assume the role of their parents. Consequently, they find themselves engaged in an affair not so much because they are a great match, but because each is experiencing a kind of internal rebellion against a path that is largely pre-determined.

The most jarring aspect of the style Field employs for Little Children is the narration - pitched somewhere between Robert Stack and Rod Serling - that fills in the specifics of certain characters’ thought processes. Field’s narrator is undoubtedly intrusive and speaks with a gravity that initially seems mismatched with the light comedic tone of the film’s early scenes. Devotees of Robert McKee will likely fume audibly in their theater seats; however, the interruptions Field creates serve a very important function. They provide a baseline from which we can judge the two adulterers' distance from their normal, everyday lives. With his film, Field is able to accurately communicate the sensation of being caught up in the magic of physical attraction. However, the voiceovers prevent the affair from taking on the kind of romanticism that is prevalent in so many other films. Because of the voiceovers, we consider the reasons why these two have drifted and are reminded of the bubble that must inevitably burst.

Complicating matters is the presence in the narrative of a convicted sex offender named Ronnie played by Jackie Earle Haley. Both vile and pathetic, Ronnie could easily have walked in from a Todd Solondz film. Indeed, one of the film’s most troubling scenes features Ronnie out on a blind date with a character played by Jane Adams of Happiness. Convinced that her son needs to have a girlfriend in order to direct his compulsive sexual urges, Ronnie’s mother is instrumental in convincing him to place a personal ad. The result of the date lands squarely in that uncomfortable Solondz range where we are both appalled and amused. In addition to his role in the film’s startling conclusion, Ronnie serves as a provocative parallel to our two adulterers. Although Ronnie receives abuse in the community because of the threat he presumably poses to the neighborhood children, we are left to wonder about the potential emotional damage that is being wrought by two loving parents.

Little Children covers territory that has been covered many times before, perhaps most famously in American Beauty; however, in doing so, it uncovers new insights and observations that are well worth the journey. It establishes a personality all its own and handles difficult subject matter while being neither too dreary nor too flippant. In the end, as fantasy begins to dissipate, the little children of the film’s title are a reminder why most of eventually let go of a cherished era of our lives and proceed forward as best we can. We do it because, despite our everlasting quest for personal fulfillment, they need our love. We do it because we hope that they will never experience a pain as deep as Ronnie’s.



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