little children (2006)

 

If you've been to a theater lately (and as long as you weren't seeing Happy Feet), you'll definitely remember the trailer for Todd Field's new film Little Children. The trailer consists of a series of quick cuts showing darkly tantalizing clips of a secret love affair, people in a swimming pool, and toy trains crashing into eachother, all wrapped together and made effectively creepy by the sounds of an approaching train that gets louder and louder, and louder still, before overwhelming us with sound as it passes us by. The trailer is a work of art, and it's obvious, before we even enter the theater, that it's something to stand on its own. Props to the editor of the trailer for a job well done, but his work in no way resembles the film he is supposed to be advertising. For one, the film's tone is not nearly as dark and foreboding as we're led to believe, though the characters do lie on the verge of a trainwreck for much of the film. Field is the acclaimed director of the 2001 film In the Bedroom, I have yet to get around to seeing that film, though after seeing this, I certainly plan to. This film's direction is fantastic, it has good performances and a very nice script, however, I was slightly underwhelmed. The film centers around a bunch of thirty-somethings who all behave like, well, little children. Were I about fifteen years older I might have connected with these bored suburbanites looking for an escape from their mundane lives, but as someone who's young and on the verge of entering that world, this flick played more like a horror movie. 

Like most films this year, its saving grace is Field's direction. He turns the film into something pretty good when in actuality it probably should have turned out to be a bit bad. I mean, this film sure as hell doesn't break any new ground on the suburban apathy front, but it does move up in the ranks a bit with some nice pacing and a bit of tongue in cheek humor via voiceover. The film succeeds more or less in giving us an accurate depiction of a world in which nothing, and I mean nothing, is as big a deal as it seems. The characters' lives all revolve around themselves and their own little world (much like children's lives do -- I get it!), but in a really unsettling way they're completely believable, vibrant and real. The film really came dangerously close to being an interconnected stories deal, but didn't quite go there because all of the characters were all at least familiar with eachother and there was little of the trademark forced-connection that runs rampant in those type of films. No, this lies comfortably in the territory of an "ensemble drama". Thank goodness. Anyhow, the film covers the lives of Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) and Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), each a stay-at-home parent, as they pass the days by watching their respective daughter and son, taking them to the park and the community pool. The film also revolves around a child molester (Jackie Earle Haley) who has moved into the neighborhood and one of Brad's buddies (an ex-cop played by Noah Emmerich) who has taken it upon himself to torment the child molester in the name of protecting the neighborhood children. Oh yes, the film also involves Jennifer Connelly and Gregg Edelman as Brad's wife and Sarah's husband. Connelly is sadly underused and merely plays the background threat to Brad and Sarah's secret affair that slowly develops on their meetings at the park/pool. It is precisely this creation of threats/traps by the characters that make the film work so well. Winslet and Wilson have some great chemistry going on and their scenes easily steal the show, in fact I wish more of the show than they already got would've been given to them. The other threat that is created on a neighborhood-wide level is that of the film's villain, the child molester. Now, I'm certainly not saying that pedophiles aren't a danger in a neighborhood full of children, nor am I saying that a husband/wife is not a bit of an obstacle to having an affair, but what the film plays up with such grace is the need for these things to become a larger-than-usual opposition to fight against in the bored suburban lifestyle. Our characters have projected all of their fears and insecurities onto the respective people in the act of dramatizing their own lives. Field provides a wonderful device to accompany this in the voiceover narration that chimes in at various points in the film. The announcer takes the mundane occurrences, such as forgetting your child's cheerios at their scheduled "snack time" in the park, and translates it to us as a catastrophe that we just might see on tonight's 6 o'clock news. The narration is a bit offsetting at the film's opening, but it soon grew to be one of my favorite aspects of the film. It's these touches that make the film something special when it could've been something altogether bland and slightly uninteresting. Also great are Field's inclusions of train whistles in the background, normal and ordinary sounds that become foreboding when placed into the context of our unhappy characters' lives. 

Is the train perhaps a signal that dark times are approaching? Is it a constant reminder of an easy escape from wherever you are at the moment? Both, actually, and that's how most of the film's devices work. Of course, that entire analogy only applies to the story of Sarah and Brad. There's also the child molester's misadventures that take up an increasingly large amount of time. By the end of all of his segments, we don't understand him any more or feel any sympathy for him, we just think he's an even bigger weirdo every time. The point could have easily been made with half the scenes, to give us more time to spend with the characters we actually care about. His "meltdown" scene can be seen coming a mile away and it's not very convincing either. But, oh well, as I said the film is quite flawed, but it doesn't really get in the way of the stuff that works about it. The cinematography is some good looking stuff. It's nice to see a director choose an aspect ratio that in some way has something remotely to do with the story he's telling. The very wide 2.35:1 ratio distances our characters within its long frame, keeping them separated and isolated for much of the film. Field composes his shots to reflect the mood pitch perfectly in most instances. His use of weather to convey mood is nothing revolutionary, but it adds a nice dimension to the film. When the grey clouds gather and that train whistle sounds, we can feel it in the air that something's coming. The film is about the hope that something big and great will happen, and it comes across loud and clear. The acting is also quite good, but in these types of roles, it's an easy-to-immitate archetype that has been movie fodder for decades. We don't have to stretch our imagination to imagine what the hurt wife or the desperate husband are feeling, we've seen it many times before. So, credit where credit is due, the actors do a good job, but nothing out of the ordinary is expected of them. Jennifer Connelly and Kate Winslet have proven themselves many times to be more than capable actresses, they do not disappoint here. The surprise is Patrick Wilson, who I'm unfamiliar with, but he takes up the role of leading man without a hitch. The direction, of course provides some good moments, as does the inventive script. Well, inventive to a point. The third act tends to feel like they could have gone out on a limb a bit more. I suppose, like the characters, I was waiting for something big, but like most things in normal life, it's never as big a deal as you assume it will be, and big changes don't happen every day. Still, the dialogue is sharp and the overall story works well, so who can really argue. I suppose I was expecting a bit more than I got, maybe some insight that wasn't so overdone. I mean, I realize that everyone has odd little private things in their life, some more odd than others, but everyone has them. That's the film in a nutshell I suppose. Not a bad way to describe the young parent's suburban lifestyle, but not a particularly bold statement either.

All in all, you could do better and you could do worse. Much worse actually. Little Children is a nice piece of work and deserves to be seen. I wouldn't recommend the theater, but a DVD atmosphere will do just fine. I liked its story, I liked its style, I liked the way it handled its material is what I'm really getting at. It's a good film all things considered. There's not much of anything else to say about it, the humorous tone made for a nice viewing for most of it, and the film knew when to play it serious. I salute it for that. 

6