Monday, November 06, 2006

Review - Little Children

What a perplexing film this is. Little Children is the second film from Todd Field, whose 2001 debut In the Bedroom won critical acclaim and Academy Award nominations. This adaptation of Tom Perotta’s novel features a first rate cast, who tackle the powerful and troubling storyline with considerable skill; and it’s a classy piece of work too, one which displays numerous moments of genuinely brilliant filmmaking.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? So why on earth did this movie leave me feeling so unsatisfied? The ingredients are all there, but they just don’t gel, and the result is a wildly uneven movie in which the brilliant moments mentioned above sit side-by-side with misjudged lumps of melodrama, unconvincing subplots, and a final third which throws the film’s slow-burning tension to the wind in favour of outright hysteria. During the early stages of Little Children I was convinced I was watching one of the films of the year; two hours later I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the film I had just watched. It’s unbelievably frustrating.

Little Children is a tale of infidelity in a small American suburb. Kate Winslet is Sarah, an unfulfilled woman who has all but given up her academic ambitions in order to be a full-time mother to her daughter Lucy, but taking care of “this unknowable little person” is hardly a role she’s suited too. Sarah spends her mornings at the local playground, casting a superior gaze over the other three mothers who congregate there, and her life seems to have settled into a fairly drab routine. Then, things change. Brad (Patrick Wilson) strolls into the playground, pushing his young son, and the three mothers alongside Sarah are instantly agog. They’ve admired him from afar for some time - they’ve nickname him “The Prom King” - and they are stunned when Sarah dares to strike up a conversation with him. He's a little stunned too, she’s the first person who has spoken to him in all of his visits.

Sarah and Patrick start to meet regularly at the playground and later at the local pool, the friendship between their children merely a handy pretence to hide the true intentions behind their encounters. Both of them feel like they’re not getting enough from their marriages - Sarah is tired of her stuffy husband Richard (Gregg Edelman), and Brad’s wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) seems to have lost all interest in sex since their son was born - and their affair is entirely predictable, but Field handles its development in brilliant fashion. He builds their relationship in a flowing seamless fashion, employing some beautifully fluid camera moves and sharp editing, and the arch narration from Will Lyman lends the film a witty edge of satire. This is a far more ambitious film visually than Field’s In the Bedroom was, but it never feels self-conscious or pretentious, it’s there purely to aid the story’s construction. There’s a genuine sense of chemistry and sexual tension between Winslet and Wilson too, which provides the motor for the film’s central narrative.

However, there’s another narrative thread present in Little Children, one which is both less conventional and more unsettling, and it causes problems for the film’s overall framework. The film opens with news reports of convicted paedophile Ronnie McGorvey (former child star Jackie Earle Haley) moving back into the area to live with his mother, in a house which is too close to the park and the swimming pool for the local parents’ comfort. A local retired cop (Noah Emmerich) has taken it upon himself to force Ronnie out, launching an almost nightly campaign of intimidation which is growing in intensity.

In many ways Ronnie becomes the most interesting and compelling character in the film. While this isn’t quite as daring as the best screen portrayal of a paedophile in suburbia - Dylan Baker in Todd Solondz’s Happiness - it’s still a complex characterisation which for the most part avoids glib stereotyping. In the early part of the film Ronnie appears to be a rather mild individual, fully aware of his impulses and trying to keep himself in check, and he hardly seems to be the monster for whom the local residents have been demanding castration. He loves his mother (the excellent Phyllis Somerville), he’s polite and seemingly in control of himself; but later scenes reveal the old urges still raging under the surface, particularly during a blind date arranged by his mother which goes terribly wrong (the woman in question is Jane Adams, who must be Hollywood’s go-to actress for bad date victims). The whole date sequence, and its aftermath, is superbly realised, but there are other times in which Field can’t quite keep a lid on the simmering tensions wrought by Ronnie’s release.

A notable scene occurs at the swimming pool, which is full of children on a hot summer’s day, and Ronnie suddenly appears clad in a snorkel and flippers. He goes for a dip and it’s some time before anyone seems to spot this rather inconspicuous character - but all hell breaks loose when they do. Every panic-stricken mother calls her child from the pool, and the mass exodus which follows is a frenzied scene which recalls similar scenes from Spielberg’s Jaws. This sudden explosion of melodrama is slightly at odds with the otherwise effectively understated tone of the film, almost throwing things off balance, and this attempt to balance the smart and evocative atmosphere of the film’s first half with the melodramatic contrivances of the second is a battle Field loses as the film nears its climax. The final twenty minutes is where the whole thing goes off the rails; a climactic section which necessitates various characters behaving stupidly, some cheap emotional shots, and an awkward dovetailing of the film’s two plots which just comes across as audience manipulation of the worst kind. I always felt that the jarring final scenes of In the Bedroom somewhat detracted from the excellence of its first two thirds, and the same thing occurs here - except it’s much worse, ending the film on a flat, unsatisfactory and deeply unpleasant note.

And yet, while I can’t wholeheartedly recommend Little Children, I can’t not recommend it either; there are too many good aspects to the film for it to be written off completely. The cast is superb, with Winslet again proving she is simply one of the best actresses in the world right now, giving a completely believable and vanity-free performance; and Wilson is also exceptional, although the constant dopey passivity of his character is rather infuriating. It’s Haley who dominates the film, though, with a touching and yet genuinely creepy piece of acting, at least until the script pushes him over the edge in the final third. Other actors are fine too, even though their characters are underdeveloped. Edelman barely gets a character at all as Sarah’s husband, and Jennifer Connelly is badly underused as well; but Connelly does at least have one superb scene, a brilliantly uncomfortable dinner party at which she first suspects her husband’s infidelity. It’s a scene which is written, directed and acted to perfection.

That’s just one of many individual scenes which live in the memory after Little Children has ended - Brad’s triumphant football game is another, as is Brad and Sarah’s first sexual encounter - but frustration is the abiding sensation the picture left me with. It’s infuriating to see filmmaking as good as that, and acting of this calibre, dropped into a movie which can’t quite handle them. Field never looks likely to pull all the disparate elements together into a satisfying whole, and Little Children is a stunningly uneven picture. It’s a potentially great film which is massively flawed; a film which offers us some of the best cinematic moments of the year, and then lets it all slide away, leaving us wondering what might have been.