Sunday, May 13, 2007

Little Children

Director: Todd Field
Starring: Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Haley, Noah Emmerich, Phyllis Sommerville, Gregg Edelman
Running Time: 130 min.
Rating: R

**** (out of ****)
In 2001 Todd Field released In The Bedroom, which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and was hailed by many critics as a masterpiece. It wasn't. Little Children is. What was the first thing I did after I finished watching this film? I sat and thought about it for a long, long time. And then...I watched it again. It's not an easy movie to sit through emotionally but it really requires at least two viewings to fully appreciate all the subtle nuances and tiny details that hide between the cracks of the film, in both the directing and the performances. It's so observant and intelligent about life that you might not even notice all the ground it covers at first. I know I didn't. After the first viewing I was taken aback and not quite sure what to make of it because it's so different from anything that's out there right now. It's very dense, methodically paced, isn't easily accessible and plays like a sprawling novel.

Based on Tom Perrotta's 2004 bestseller of the same name, Field co-wrote the script with author, going on record as saying they had no interest in simply just translating the material onto the screen, but adding a different dimension to it. Having not read the book I can't compare the two, but I have a feeling this is one of those rare adaptations where the integrity of the original work was not only preserved, but enhanced. Kubrickian in its execution, the film features a visionary style, sterile quality, and dark sense of humor the late director would have surely appreciated. It even contains a Barry Lydon-style voiceover narration. There's a throwback feel to it, from the creepy opening title sequence to the score and pacing all the way to it's ambiguous but ambitious ending. It could hold its own with some of the best from the 60's and 70's. The kind of movie they don't make anymore.

I thought Kubrick comparison may have been unfair until I remembered that Todd Field was an actor before he was a director and had a small role in Kubrick's last and most underrated film, Eyes Wide Shut. It looks like someone took notes. Many filmmakers have attempted to employ Kubrick's style over the years but none have come close to succeeding technically or effectively harnessing the spirit of them. Field has.

The film perfectly capturing those lazy summer afternoons in suburbia where the "desperate housewives" sit idly on the park bench gossiping while their children play. Playground politics are on full display in this small Massachusetts suburb and Field keeps digging deeper and deeper into the hypocrisy that surrounds its inhabitants. Someone who wants no part of this hypocrisy and is truthful to herself to a fault is Sarah Pierce (Oscar nominated Kate Winslet). A free spirited woman who was once a dissertation away from her Master's degree in English and is now a mother who couldn't possibly be more unfit for motherhood. Her only enjoyment in life comes from her evening walk around the neighborhood facilitated by her husband Richard's (Gregg Edelman) return from work, where he stays late masturbating to internet porn.

Sarah finds herself amidst three shallow housewives who have set their sights on a man they've dubbed the "Prom King," who has returned to the playground with his son after a long absence. This is Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) a stay-at-home dad whose beautiful wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) is a successful PBS documentary filmmaker and family breadwinner. That she's a documentary filmmaker is a neat touch since the uncredited voice that narrates this film belongs to Will Lyman of PBS Frontline fame. Screenwriting coach Robert McKee will probably yell at me for saying this but I'm a sucker for voice over narration. If used well it can add a lot to and this is possibly the best use of it ever in a film. The narrator here is smart, eloquent and often very humorous, popping up at just the right moment (like a tense dinner scene) to add rather than detract from the story. His voice is as much a character as anyone else's in the film.

Brad spends his days entertaining his son and his nights pretending to study for the bar exam, which he's failed more times than JFK Jr. He doesn't want to be a lawyer, or really much of anything for that matter. Time that could be spent studying is used watching kids skateboard in the park in an attempt to recapture the teenage years that eluded him, even though the kids don't even notice he's there. The housewives in the playground are too scared to talk to him, or maybe simply too lazy, but Sarah isn't and on a dare strikes up a conversation. As a joke they share a kiss in front of the shocked and horrified mothers resulting in a very funny scene. That eventually leads to summer afternoons at the pool with the kids and a deep friendship. It soon turns into a torrid affair.

Meanwhile the entire neighborhood has a bigger problem with the release of convicted child molester Ronnie J. McGorvey (Oscar nominated Jackie Earle Haley) from jail after serving a 2-year sentence. He comes home to live with his aging mother (the wonderful Phyllis Somerville) and their scenes together are maybe the most touching, and at the same time strangely pathetic, of the film. She's trying to prepare him for life when she's gone despite the distraction of the town breathing down their necks. When he shows up for a swim at the public pool the parents grab their kids and flee like they've seen Jaws. Leading the charge is Larry Hedges (a completely unrecognizable Noah Emmerich), a "retired" neighborhood cop who leads a group called "The Committee for Concerned Parents" who makes it their mission to rid the town of this pedophile. He organizes a weekly touch football game with the guys and recruits Brad to be their quarterback. He has a secret of his own. From the opening scene of the film, with figurines rattling on a shelf as the sound of an oncoming train approaches, we're prepared for tragedy as these characters' lives threaten to intersect in the worst possible way for over two tension-filled hours.

Rarely does a film get so many little details right and hide such small treasures for the viewer to discover. Like the jester hat Brad's son wears all day but takes off the second his mother comes through the door, as if playtime is over. The real parent is home. No use for silly costumes. Or Sarah forgetting the rice cakes for her daughter and her frazzled reaction to it. Has anyone ever been more ill equipped for parenthood? The narrator at times mirrors the thoughts of the audience as he wonders how Brad can possibly cheat on his seemingly "perfect" wife with Sarah but we actually do know why and so does he. Sarah understands him and for Brad that means an awful lot right now. His wife would rather share the bed with their infant son.

The movie tries to convince us that Sarah is even physically wrong for Brad with her "boyish figure," and does an admirable job dressing her in baggy clothes to make her look as unflattering as possible. Of course we know Kate Winslet is far from ugly and having a "boyish figure," but if the narrator and wardrobe do not completely convince you, her performance will. She digs deep into this sad and negligent mother to deliver the finest work of her career. Some may find her scene with the book club discussing Madame Bovary a little too on the nose and in the hands of a lesser director it would have been. Field knows just the right way to handle it and Winslet is captivating.

On the surface Jennifer Connelly's Kathy seems like just a ball and chain plot device for Brad and Sarah to get together and an underdeveloped character. Look closer though. Watch how Connelly effectively portrays a nagging wife without ever once nagging. She'll give a look or say something just a certain way that gets under Brad's skin. When he announces he's thinking of buying a cell phone her response is so simple and matter of fact that it's actually devastating. How about when Brad comes home and finds a list of magazines he's subscribed to on the table with a note attached: "Do You Really Need These?" Finally a movie portrays marital strife with something a spouse would actually do! People don't always scream and yell at each other. These are the things that hurt more.

Over the past two weeks, between this and the indie drama Hard Candy, I've been able to see two movies starring Patrick Wilson, who I had never really seen or heard of before then. Both of these films are among the best I've seen in years and I think the reason neither performance garnered nominations (perhaps aside from the uncomfortable subject matter) is that he has such a natural screen presence that it appears he isn't doing anything. He's the best kind of actor. He doesn't force anything and can slip into a character without you noticing he's inhabiting it. With his blank expression and regular everyman looks you don't even notice he's giving a performance. Of course it wouldn't be up for any awards. It's too subtly brilliant and never draws any attention to itself. It's what he doesn't do that makes him so effective.

Much has made of Jackie Earle Haley's huge comeback and return to Hollywood's good graces thirty years after his role in The Bad News Bears. The strange thing about his performance as Ronnie is that it doesn't pull you in immediately, but rather sneaks up on you and slowly builds throughout the film until it finally explodes, or more accurately, implodes. His blind date is painful to watch. It seems like it's going well until we realize this man is simply not capable of having any kind of normal social interaction with anyone. The date ends the only way it can: in disaster.

Recently there has been some forward progression in how pedophiles have been portrayed onscreen. Between this film, The Woodsman and Hard Candy we're seeing pedophiles portrayed not as nameless, faceless monsters but as real people who are seriously ill and need help. Their behavior may be monsterous but it doesn't mean they're not human. It may be easier for us to pretend they're not, but if we do we're no closer to understanding what causes it. If we don't understand that, how can we prevent it? It's a reminder movies can educate as well as entertain. A lot of people are going to be uncomfortable with a movie that presents a pedophile in a sympathetic light, but I don't think this does that. It presents him as a sick human. Haley's performance is what earns our sympathy. Your heart breaks for the guy.

As good Haley's performance is, it's not the best in the film. I think that honor belongs to Noah Emmerich as the neighbor who makes it his life goal to harass the hell out of Ronnie and his mother. I can't tell you how many neighborhood parents I knew growing up who were exactly like ex-cop Larry Hedges. I could swear I knew the man. Emmerich gets every detail just right. It's so spot on it's scary. Loud, lonely, obnoxious, opinionated and self-centered he's the guy in the neighborhood you're nice to because you feel you have to be. Not a bad guy mind you, just annoying. You always have that feeling that he's harmless though, as he hides behind his mask of insecurity. For good reason. Everyone has a past. Especially guys like Larry. When you live in a small town you really have no choice but to be nice to him because you're going to have to deal with him every day. I loved it when Kathy had to remind Brad that he doesn't even like Larry Hedges. How true that often we get so caught up in our routines we're not even sure how we really feel about anyone, or even if we care anymore.

Emmerich, a fine character actor best known for his "best friend" supporting roles in films like The Truman Show and Frequency finally has an opportunity to play a character that's three dimensional and complex, and he sinks his teeth into it. How committed was he to this performance? Let's just say when he first appeared on screen I had no idea who he was. He looks like he lost all the weight DeNiro gained for Raging Bull. You can tell he underwent both a physical and emotional transformation to become this neurotic, obsessed man. It's the great overlooked performance of the film because it weaves so seamlessly and realistically into the story that it's almost impossible to notice how powerful his work is upon an initial viewing. His character is at the heart and soul of this film and that's never clearer than at the end. I think it's my favorite performance, supporting or otherwise, of the past year and Emmerich deserved a nomination.

Everyone has their favorite genre of film. Some like horror, others action/adventure, and some prefer suspense films. I always get strange looks when I tell people my favorite type of films are suburban nightmares. There's something about real people put in real situations with the volume turned way up that I respond to. Since I grew up in a small town a lot like this one (minus the public pool) and hated it it's always interesting for me to see these types of films exposing the hypocrisy of the residents, yet still showing them as human beings who make mistakes. The title of the film is cruelly ironic as it's the parents who are really the "little children." They need to be protected…from themselves. There's something about the truthful way it exposes how people think and act that we can learn from. I would rank this film alongside American Beauty, The Ice Storm and The Swimmer as the greatest in this genre.

I went into this film with the highest expectations imaginable and they were exceeded tenfold. In a year that's seen films like Children of Men and Notes on a Scandal come with incredible hype only to fall short for me I went in with great trepidation as well as optimism. As the film's finale approached I worried Field would force all these characters into a contrived collision course of melodrama. Just the opposite occurred. Instead the film ended quietly, introspectively and intelligently. At first I was surprised how abrupt the ending was and the lack of closure. But sometimes in life, that's how it is.

You have to wonder what would have happened had New Line gotten behind this film and pushed it like all the mindless sequels and remakes we've been seeing in theaters lately. That it was only nominated for 3 (albeit very well deserved) Academy Awards is shameful. It should have been a lock for a Best Picture nomination. How Field's first feature In the Bedroom, a great film but inferior on every single level, earned one in 2001 is perplexing. I think mismarketing is to blame and it's carried over into the DVD release as well. The cover art makes the film look like a romantic comedy and doesn't even hint at the emotional heft and complexity of this story.

Interestingly, the DVD doesn't come with a single special feature (not even a trailer) and there are no plans for a special edition in the future. You know what? I'm glad. Any special feature accompanying a film like this would seem gratuitous. Supplemental material, which in most cases is still a good idea, has devolved into a tool for filmmakers to hide the fact their movie sucks. I really don't need to hear George Lucas talk about the catering crew on the Star Wars Episode III DVD. This movie can stand on it's own and it's fitting there isn't a feature on here because this movie doesn't even seem like it belongs in the DVD era at all. That this is only Todd Field's second film can mean one of two things: He's peaked, or more frighteningly, his best work is yet to come. Either way, Little Children is one of those rare motion pictures that stay with you.

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