Friday, February 11, 2011

The Movie List: Little Children (2006)

Ha! I bet most of you thought that I had forgotten all about this endeavor, in which I work my way through a list of Oscar nominees and would-be contenders from 2004 onward. But I've finally had a chance to view another entry, and its a great one.

Film: Little Children
Director: Todd Field
Oscar Nominations: 3 (Actress, Kate Winslet; Supporting Actor, Jackie Earle Haley; Adapted Screenplay, Todd Field & Tom Perrotta); no wins

Suburban dramas are a dime a dozen. We all know that the privileged upper-middle-class has its share of problems, mostly being existential ennui and a need to really live. What the best of these films, such as American Beauty, do is make you really connect with the characters and present its tale in a rich way, breaking down the story or the characters to reveal something new. Little Children succeeds at this, painting a new vision of suburban boredom by peeling back the layers of the characters to expose their true natures.

The film stars Kate Winslet as Sarah Pierce, a suburban housewife who doesn't necessarily fit in with the other housewives. While they swoon over a handsome dad they call the Prom King (Patrick Wilson) on the playground, she sits apart from them, internally critiquing them and ridiculing them. She's married to Richard Pierce (Gregg Edleman), who develops an obsession with an Internet porn star named Slutty Kay. After a flirtatious first meeting, Sarah and Brad Adamson (aka the Prom King) begin a steamy affair, each bringing their own baggage to the relationship. Brad has failed the bar exam multiple times, and feels inferior to his bread-winning wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly). All of this occurs as a convicted child molester, Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), moves into the neighborhood with his mother, sending the entire community into a "protect-the-children" frenzy.

There is a scene in the film in which Sarah attends a neighborhood book club, where the book being discussed is Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. This is obviously meant to be a parallel for the action of the film, as shots of Sarah and Brad's erotic trysts are integrated within the scene. But the film finds another source of inspiration from an unlikely source: Peter Pan. Every character, from Sarah to Brad to Ronnie, has never actually grown up; they are the titular little children. None of them really behave like adults, and resort to various extremes to cope with the adulthood they're unprepared for: Sarah has her romantically idealized relationship with Brad; Brad sits for hours watching skateboarders and gets roped into a touch football league; and Ronnie, of course, has his perversion. So naturally, things are not going to end well for any of them. But the film takes its time building to its, if not melodramatically tragic, at least disturbingly ambiguous climax, layering and deconstructing the characters so that we sympathize with all of them. And yes, that does include Ronnie. One particularly terrific scene involves Ronnie visiting the crowded community pool during a hot day. Decked out in swim-fins and a snorkel and goggles, he is at first able to dive in without any commotion. But when someone recognizes him, a frantic hysteria arises as if Jaws himself was in the pool, with parents scrambling not just to get their kids out of the water, but as far away from the pool's edge as possible. This leaves Ronnie alone in the pool, and though is goggles cover most of his face, you can sense the defeat in him. As the police come to escort him from the pool, his bitter exclamation "I was only trying to cool off!" unexpectedly stings, making you emphasize with a man who is still a human being, though no one will ever see him as anything less than a monster.

Of course, that empathy can be credited to Haley's indelible performance. The rest of the cast is great, too. Winslet can always be relied on to deliver a great performance (the awful The Reader notwithstanding; and yes, I know she won her first Oscar for that film but she hardly deserved it for that), and her Sarah is a richly realized person rather than just a housewife caricature (plus, she was nominated for an Oscar for this role, so you know she'll at least be topless for one scene; I have this theory that the Academy doesn't like her much unless she's nude, and there are only two nominations of her six, to my knowledge, in which she's not at least topless). Wilson, too, gives a solid performance, bringing a certain boyish charm to the role that makes you realize that he's the kind of person who's still stuck in his senior year of high school, when he was the quarterback of the football team and, most likely, the prom king; the best part of this being that he never explicitly says any of this. And Connelly doesn't get much to do, but she does make the most of her scenes as the type-A personality who suspects her husband of cheating on her.

Little Children is an excellent film, exploring the depths of characters we either feel like we know going in or don't think we could ever possibly want to explore. It's a surprising take on the suburban drama that doesn't fall into cliche.


Kalli said...

I really like this movie. The book is great, too. I recommend it.

Kate should have won for her role as Clementine in Eternal Sunshine. She was amazing in that. She was good in The Reader, too, but that movie wasn't nearly as good as the majority of her other films.

Jason H. said...

I whole-heartedly agree with you on Eternal Sunshine - she was robbed that night! Best performance of her career, hands-down.

I'll have to investigate the book sometime.