LITTLE CHILDREN, like its title creatures, makes for a generally enthralling, often frustrating back & forth experience. Unlike time spent with those wee folk, it provides little in the way of hope, joy or fun to mark its grownup baby-sitting for 137 minutes. It looks swell, and the performances are strong—one in particular is a bracingly effective career-rescue—but the tone wobble and choices of emphasis have you wonder what message exactly the writing and direction are trying to convey.
Co-writing the screenplay for this 2006 suburbs-as-soul-killers drama with Tom Perotta, author of the well-received novel, director Todd Field revisited the terra firma of damaged middle-class Americans that he’d delicately crafted for In The Bedroom. This time, instead of the numb of murder and its shattering repercussions, here he puts cast and audience through the furtive paces of infidelity, social ostracism and sex deviance. Well, at least you have a helluva lawn.
Already enervated with her stay-at-home Momness, ‘Sarah Pierce’ (Kate Winslet) is further depressed when she catches her clod hubby watching porn (with panties on his face—and this is, like, wrong?). At the city pool, her likewise bored to-distraction-by-lack-of-action girlfriends dare her to approach a local hunk. Brushed flirtation becomes mad, sweaty passion in short-enough order, as ‘Brad Adamson’ (Patrick Wilson), once a jock star, now a house cat who can’t pass the bar exam, seizes the fling as an escape from his career-occupied, seemingly smarter wife (Jennifer Connelly). Both pained adulterers have little children, bringing another angle to the story, as the neighborhood houses not only relationship-strained parents and their as-yet innocent offspring, but man-child ‘Ronnie’. He’s a recently released pedophile who lives with his only friend, his mother. The well-manicured neighborhood only looks nice on the surface.
What best sells the film isn’t the story of the miserable, mostly unlikable characters, but the superior performances, chiefly Winslet, Jackie Earle Haley as Ronnie and Phyllis Somerville as his mother. Winslet, 30, pulled her fifth Oscar nomination by quietly illuminating the seesaw of tremulous dignity, gnawing doubt and tactile yearning (with no little dollop of summer lust) that pushes her affair.
Haley’s acting career had been on hiatus for 13 years before returning in ’06 for a part in the ill-fated remake of All The King’s Men and the much better role in this much better film. His comeback here knocked collective critical socks off, earning him a host of awards and nominations, including a nom for the Supporting Actor Oscar. Alan Arkin copped it for his funny grouch-grandpa quirking and quipping away in Little Miss Sunshine, but the statue belonged to the searing display from Haley. Twisted, tormented, repellent and defiant, aware of his nature and unable to change it, Haley’s Ronnie is not just believably creepy: the actor manages to make the character recognizably human rather than merely a simple monster.
He’s even oddly touching and sympathetic in his scenes with Somerville, who also deserves high praise for her defensive, forgiving, rationalizing parent who somehow thinks there’s a “right girl” for her son out there, one older than 18 anyway. Primarily a stage and TV actress, Somerville, 63 here, ought to have graced more movies. Sympathy gets flayed, however, in the disturbingly eerie, deeply sad scene between Ronnie and his pitiable date, played sweetly by Jane Adams. It’s effective, but also feels like an extra helping of cruel on an already loaded plate. *
Credit mostly to the actors, then, because what makes the movie a bit of a trial is that the director and his co-writer can’t seem to decide if they’re telling a straight and truthful drama, or jousting with a dark satire, as both scene-stylings juxtapose and jar. A major shin-kick is to have condescending irony laid on with a trowel in the form of a omniscient narrator, voiced by Will Lyman, familiar from droning on TVs Frontline. The mordacious, disentranced tone of his running jabber is at odd with the acting, maddeningly telling us what the characters are thinking, so we’re robbed of being able to interpret the actors looks and vocal expressions any other way. The final wrapup is a real stretch.
Whether it was the subject matter, or one too many movies reminding us we’re unhappy (the suburbs always get pounded, it’s elitist bull), even with strong reviews and the Oscar talk, the public only ponied up $14,800,000, marking it a big loser off a $26,000,000 expenditure.
The lush cinematography is the work of Antonio Calvache. Thomas Newman composed the score, yet another of his sensitive backdrops for movies about the ordinary American milieu, especially when it’s under stress. *
With Noah Emmerich (disgraced ex-cop who gets unhinged plaguing Ronnie), Gregg Edelman (the doof husband caught watching ‘Slutty Kay’, enthusiastically embodied by Sarah Buxton), Raymond J. Barry (comic role as a the super-macho ‘Bullhorn Bob’), Mary B. McCann and Trini Alvarado.
* One thing that helps the nonstop pain go down is that the movie changes the book’s Ronnie, who was not only a molester but a murderer, a surefire audience turnoff. Well, you’d hope: a few rides on mass transit would have you wonder.
** The craftsmanship of the copiously gifted Newman family of music artists has a luster that spans generations. Thomas Newman’s unobtrusively emotive touch has sown its threads into the fabric of modern Americana via his scores for Fried Green Tomatoes, The Shawshank Redemption, Little Women, How To Make An American Quilt, The Green Mile, In The Bedroom, Erin Brockovich, American Beauty, White Oleander, Cinderella Man, Revolutionary Road and The Help, to name a few.