Little Children

| November 17, 2006

Suburbia sucks. It’s a plastic purgatory, a Mecca of consumerism and conformity. It’s white picket fences, mini-vans and Wal-Mart. The women are peppy Stepford Wives, the men alpha-male drones. Everything is shiny and clean and sterile. And those who dare to be different, to have their own dreams and ideas, are either destroyed or assimilated. Resistance is futile.
That, in any case, is what the movies would have us believe. Filmmakers have been peddling this sour, black-and-white philosophy for some time now; “suburban malaise” is practically its own genre. The grand irony of Little Children, the latest variation on a very tired story, is that it’s just as phony and hollow as the culture it so viciously condemns. Cast in the worn-out American Beauty mold–but with twice the bombast and none of the laughs–this is a brazenly artificial movie, manufactured to fulfill the shallowest of thematic intentions. What’s more, it suffers from a severe identity crisis: unsure whether it wants to be a dark infidelity drama (a la We Don’t Live Here Anymore) or a scathing social satire, it walks the proverbial middle road and vastly misses both its marks.
Yet Little Children is more than just a forgettable misfire. Given the considerable talent involved, it’s also a massive disappointment. This is, after all, the second feature from Todd Fields, who kick-started his career with the remarkable In the Bedroom. Talk about a sophomore slump. It’s hard to believe the same man made both films: in jumping on the suburban-angst bandwagon, Fields eschews the restraint and eloquence (not to mention the simple aesthetic grace) of his debut, wallowing instead in the sort of empty flash that was once considered the anti-thesis of “indie” filmmaking. The Todd Fields who made In the Bedroom favored intimate moments between characters, and performances layered with intense, repressed emotion. He gave both his actors and his audience space to breathe, to absorb, and to interpret. But that was five years ago. The new model of Todd Fields–sleeker and more confident, yet joyless in his craft–has no time for such ambiguities, no patience for subtle storytelling.
This much is made clear in the opening moments of Little Children, during which a droll, omniscient narrator (CNN’s Will Lyman) begins describing not just the events on screen, but also the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters. A transparent stylistic quirk, this dreadful device spells out every last one of the film’s broad themes, effectively stripping it of subtext. It also, rather amusingly, reveals an unlikely kinship: as a portrait of the secret fears and desires lurking beneath Middle America’s placid façade, Little Children doesn’t so much resemble Blue Velvet (still the gold standard when it comes to suburban satire), as it does a particularly racy, violent episode of Desperate Housewives. It’s that insipid.
Adapted from a novel by Tom Perrotta (who co-wrote the heavy-handed script with Fields), this hectoring diatribe of a film begins with a Meet Cute, of sorts. Sarah (Kate Winslet) and Brad (Patrick Wilson) first encounter each other at the neighborhood playground they bring their children to. Brad is married to a “knock-out” (Jennifer Connelly), a documentary filmmaker who wins the bread while he raises their young son. Sarah is married to a low-level suit (Greg Edelman) who masturbates to images of an Internet vixen whose panties he straps to his face–a mere taste of the tired, sneering “dark humor” the film accosts us with. United by vague dissatisfaction with their buttoned-down family lives, Sarah and Brad drift into an uneasy, sexually-charged friendship, using their kids’ play dates as a socially acceptable excuse to spend time together. Will they give in to temptation and cross the line?
Alas, yuppie adultery and middle class discontent occupy only about half of the film’s running time. The other, more sensationalized storyline involves the introduction of Ronny (Jackie Earle Haley), a convicted sex offender who moves into the neighborhood and becomes the immediate scapegoat for the entire community. Leading the witch-hunt is Larry (Noah Emmerich), an ex-cop who obsessively hounds Ronny, day and night, to avoid confronting his own sins. It almost goes without saying that these separate plot strands will eventually intersect, woven together by a grander thematic purpose. What’s dismaying is how deliberate yet clunky Little Children is by its very design. The film is constructed like a creaky old amusement park ride, meting out cheap thrills (such as a nighttime football sequence shot like a goddamn Nike commercial) as it races for its ominous, faux-cathartic finish.
As such, some very good actors are reduced to mere cogs in this infernal machine. The principle players struggle and strain to transform their fundamentally one-dimensional characters into real human beings. None of them entirely succeed–the possible exception being Phyllis Somerville, who gives the sex offender’s mother a peculiar, entrancing warmth–yet some fare better than others. Winslet, Wilson, and Connelly all keep their heads above water, perhaps by virtue of their charisma and experience alone. The same can certainly not be said for Emmerich (who’s undone by the sheer absurdity of his dialogue and actions) nor, especially, for Haley. The former child actor, best remembered as the motorcycle kid in the original Bad News Bears, adopts twitchy, stilted mannerisms in his portrayal of a sexual misfit. Ronny, you see, actually is a bit of a creep, albeit a remorseful one, and Fields gives Haley free reign to indulge in some strange but very labored affectations. Late in the picture, the actor explodes into a fit of shrieking histrionics, an over-the-top ruckus that, unfortunately, perfectly matches the tone of this entire synthetic spectacle. It’s a broad performance in a broad movie.
Curiously enough, though, Haley is instrumental to the film’s strongest sequence, really the only moment that achieves a shred of honesty or emotional resonance. Goaded by his mother to meet someone his own age, Ronny actually goes out on a date. The unlucky contestant? Jane Adams, as the same sort of downtrodden, withering violet she so convincingly portrayed in Todd Solondz’s Happiness. Solondz could have written this scene (particularly its sick, painfully ironic, deeply sad ending), and it’s fun, in a perverse sort of way, to imagine that Adams is playing the same character, older but still dating some of the worst specimens of mankind. Then again, such an allusion does no favors to Little Children. Even at their nastiest and broadest, Solondz’s damning critiques of suburbia flow on undercurrents of compassion and wickedly funny insight; he aims to find the humanity in the lonely, the depraved, the disillusioned. These days, Todd Fields is content just pushing buttons. So who, then, are the real little children: the selfish creatures that populate these assembly-line suburban exposes? Or the filmmakers who create them?

About the Author:

Jon Bastian Jon is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles, where he has been currently appearing in Flash Theater LA when not working for Cesar Millan to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
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