Filmmaker Todd Field scored an indie hit with
In the Bedroom in 2001. Now he tries to repeat that success with
Little Children (opening November 17 at Landmarks Hillcrest Cinemas), an adaptation of Tom Perrottas novel.
Little Children is set in what appears to be a typical American suburban community. Mothers and their kids fill the local playground, while local men engage in a late night touch football league. But the calm community is disrupted by the fact that Ronald James McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), a convicted pedophile, has been released from prison and is now living in their neighborhood. Larry (Noah Emmerich), an ex-cop, hounds the ex-con by plastering the neighborhood with flyers warning parents to keep their children away from this known pedophile. Larry also sprays paints Ronalds walkway with the word EVIL and wakes him nightly with horn-honking just to let him know that hes being watched.
Patrick Wilson and Kate Winslet star in Little Children.
Meanwhile, a very different kind of upheaval occurs at the local park. A man referred to as the "Prom King" (Patrick Wilson) is all the gossip for the mothers at the park. Hes a young, handsome man who apparently has no job and takes the time to hang out in the park with his little son. The woman drool over this sexy, sensitive male but no one dares talk to him. Then one of the moms bets the more aloof Sarah (Kate Winslet) five dollars that she cant get the guys phone number. The shy Sarah is emboldened by the bet and she not only discovers that the mans name is Brad but she convinces him to give her a hug in order to shock the other women. But the hug leads to a kiss that not only sends the other women running from the park but jolts Sarah as well. This encounter seems to make clear to both Sarah and Brad that they are not happy in their lives so they tentatively engage in an affair that grows more serious through the course of the summer.
Novelist Tom Perrrotta penned the savagely funny novel Election and there are hints of that satiric edge in Little Children . As adapted to the screen by Todd Field, the early scenes of Little Children play out like a pointed ethnographic film on suburban moms. As Sarah observes what she sees as the foreign behavior of the other women, the film has a satiric sting thats ruthlessly accurate. But as the film begins to weave its multiple plots and kick up the dramatic tension, it grows more uneven. A major hindrance is the male, voice-of-god narrator that interrupts the action with ponderous commentary. This voiceover adds pretentious weight to the story. It also pulls us out of the story to remind us that we are watching a film, and being told what its about. A detached, omniscient male narrator was put to good effect in Personal Velocity , a multi-stranded plot about three women. In that film, the male voice provided a perfect counterpart to the drama of the women, and it guided us through their lives. In Little Children , there is a complete disconnect between the narration and the film. It feels as if the novelist came in at the last minute to read from his book at intervals where he felt the film had failed to convey his intended meaning. The narration might have worked better if it captured a sense of irony that deflated the melodrama rather than making it more somber and intense.
The script also takes the events of the novel and spins them into something that plays out in a very contrived manner. We sense the serious and forced manner in which the film wants us to see Sarahs life and choices in parallel to the book, Madame Bovary , that shes reading. And the final climax requires all the characters reach some sort of epiphany at the same time. Again, this comes across as heavy-handed and unbelievable. A lighter or more ironic touch, even though some of the material is serious and dark, would have been helpful.
Kate Winslet in Little Children.
The film does boast some fine acting, most notably from Winslet and Haley. Winslet begins with the kind of irony that could have made the film more palatable. Unfortunately, the script only supports that in the early goings. Haley, who was a child star in films like The Bad News Bears and then pretty much vanished, returns this year with dramatic performances in both Little Children and the recent All the Kings Men . He makes Ronald both repulsive and somewhat sympathetic. He never lets us forget that Ronald is still dangerous and still suffers from sexual dysfunction but you also feel angry about the level of harassment he receives from Larry and others in the community.
Little Children (rated R for language, sexual content and violence) refers not only to the kids that the parents worry about but also to the adults who often behave immaturely. The film is highly erratic. Just as a scene or a performance starts to pull you in, Field interrupts the proceedings with his annoying narrator and completely yanks you out of whatever connection we might have been feeling with the characters.