‘Little Children’: A well-written and well-acted suburban drama from Todd Field

 

Everyone has issues; everyone has some kind of weakness and if you think you have the right to pass judgment on others, then you are a hypocrite. I’ve not seen a film in recent times that drives home this point more than Todd Field’s brilliant second film Little Children. It’s one of those films that pokes its fingers accusingly at every member of the audience and says, ”C’mon, don’t act so innocent. Don’t be so self-righteous. I know you’ve had thoughts like these too.” Take Patrick Wilson’s character Brad for instance: He is married to an incredibly gorgeous woman played by Jennifer Connelly and they have a small kid. He is unemployed but he’s been trying to pass the bar exam for the past two years. So she is the one who seems to be wearing the pants in the family. And naturally, because of this, he is intimidated by her as she is slightly controlling (she shows him their monthly bills and asks if he really needs those magazines he subscribes to).

And their sex life is not that good. (Just imagine the frustration of being married to someone like Connelly and not getting enough sex.) So, despite being married to her, he feels lonely and pathetic. Enter Kate Winslet’s character, Sarah, who is going through an even worse marriage than Brad’s. She discovers that her husband is more interested in jerking off to porn than her. When Brad and Sarah meet, they instantly have a connection. Patrick and Kate are perfectly cast. They have a crackling sexual chemistry. I always see Patrick as the male version of Kate because he seems to be always picking the same kind of roles that Kate does. The film, set in a classic suburban middle-class neighborhood, has many such unhappy characters. And the story and characters are so convincing because we know such characters exist. It’s when Jackie Earle Haley’s character Ronnie shows up that these people’s true nature is revealed more vividly. He plays a sex offender and it’s this character that feels like a barometer with which the character of everyone else is judged.Then there is Larry – a  friend of Brad’s who happens to be an ex-cop with a troubled past – who is constantly harassing Ronnie. (There is a fairly haunting scene at the end with Ronnie that is as moving as it is disturbing.)

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Everyone wants to protect their kids from Ronnie. Larry even sets up a committee comprising all the parents in the neighbourhood to keep their kids safe. The film’s title may refer to these children or it could mean these characters themselves. Everyone is a grown up but they are all acting irresponsibly. Everyone feels trapped and some of them think it’s okay to get what they want while others think it’s not. Brad feels bad about having an affair with Sarah but he does it anyway. Sarah, on the other hand, doesn’t. There is an excellent scene where Sarah is having a book discussion with other women in the neighbourhood and the book they are discussing is Madame Bovary. They all have read it and they all have different perspectives on the main female character. Sarah has a strikingly different and relatively more sensible perspective which they all seem to approve. She says that cheating on someone isn’t feminism but The hunger for an alternative, and the refusal to accept a life of unhappiness. Like I said before, it points out the flaws in all of us and forbids us from making judgments on these characters. It’s almost satirical if you really think about it. It suggests the possibility that we might do the same thing if we were in their shoes.

The writing, directing and acting in this film are all perfect. It encourages you to have an open mind when it comes to judging other people. It stresses the importance of having a clear perspective on certain matters. There have been many good Hollywood dramas set in the American suburbia and out of the recent examples, the most well-known is American Beauty. But in my opinion, two films have done a far better job: Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm and the other one is, obviously, Little Children. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Tom Perotta and employs a novelistic way of narrating the story, using a voiceover. This is one of the few films where the voiceover works. I can’t imagine a better way of narrating it. Todd Field was a former actor who made a successful transition into directing. He had the privilege of working with some of the greatest directors in Hollywood such as Carl Franklin and Stanley Kubrick (Todd played the pianist in Eyes Wide Shut ). He has only directed two films so far, this and 2001’s In the Bedroom – both critically acclaimed films.

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