Film Review: Little ChildrenIn our society where so many things have been taken to such extremes simply for their shock value, there is perhaps only one taboo that still has any currency – paedophilia. Thankfully, whilst the tabloids are only too happy to rain down verbal sulphur on those afflicted with this condition, a few film-makers recently have been brave enough to try and look the problem in the eye.
2004’s Mystic River examined the terrible impact child abuse can have on a person’s life. Last year’s The Woodsman, also starring Kevin Bacon, took an unflinching look at the life of a convicted child molester trying to re-integrate back into society whilst attempting to free himself of his condition. Bacon’s character is unable to hold down a job once his colleagues uncover his past, and struggles with the temptation to re-offend, whilst simultaneously trying to prevent another man committing a similar crime.
If possible, Little Children goes a step further. Whereas Bacon’s character was in some sense sympathetic, Ronnie – convicted of indecent exposure to children – is far less so. Whereas Bacon’s film star looks, and numerous “good guy” roles make it easy to identify with him, Ronnie is played by Jackie Earle Haley, a relative unknown. Furthermore, whereas Bacon is tempted but resists, Ronnie fails at precisely the moment when the audience is beginning to root for him. It’s a disturbing moment as it lifts the lid on the darkness inside, and we realise that previously we have only seen him through his mother’s eyes.
This incident also brings one of the film’s previous events into greater clarity. Earlier in the movie Ronnie, who is banned from going within 100 yards of places where large numbers of children might be, turns up at the local pool. The sequence where he swims unnoticed through the water is shot and edited to make it seem like he is on the verge of re-offending. Indeed the sequence incorporates a number of brave point of view shots that make the audience see the world from his distorted perspective. Yet as he is taken away by the police he protests his innocence. In the middle of an unbearable heat wave he was only trying to cool down. Somehow his claim is believable, that is, at least until that latter unveiling.
However, the film’s portrayal of Ronnie is strengthened by the fact that the film doesn’t leave him there, but invites us again to sympathise with him. It’s as if the film-makers are stressing the difficulties that must be faced if people with this condition are to conquer their weaknesses, and encouraging us as society to recognise that this is a long haul. The film also relativises the threat Ronnie poses. A number of parents are shown to be more concerned by the vigilante making Ronnie and his mother’s lives hell, than by the presence of this supposed “monster” in their midst. Refreshingly the film seems to emphasise that sin is sin, and none of it is good.
Ronnie’s story is actually only part of this film’s overall narrative. At least half of the film is spent examining the lives of two of those parents. Sarah (Kate Winslet) and Brad (Patrick Wilson) play the stay-at-home parents from two different families who meet, and are somehow drawn to each other. The film draws a number of parallels between each of these three characters.
Firstly, all three are outsiders. Sarah’s undoubted love for her daughter does not hide the fact that she is not as good at it as the other mums she hangs around with. Whilst they introduce strict routines, and obsess about their children’s diet’s, Sarah forgets her daughters snack. Her friends leave her to desperately thrash about, drowning in feelings of anxiety and inadequacy before offering her a lifeline. But the lifeline seems to be more to demonstrate their superiority than a genuine offer of help.
As a man, Brad is also an outsider to this group of super-parents. Whilst they fill their days dreaming about him, they have no desire convert their fantasy into reality. Brad serves them best as an idealised figure so they keep him at arms length (they don’t even talk to him) to prevent their dreams from getting spoilt. Whilst they condemn Sarah for kissing him they fail to notice the log in their own eyes, resulting from the adultery they have committed in their hearts and minds.
All three lead characters also experience a sense of isolation. Ronnie is pretty much forced to stay inside to avoid trouble. There is no indication of any love in Sarah’s marriage and her only friend is a woman far older than her who she dare not confide in. Whilst Brad and his wife do love each other, their child has come between them, quite literally in fact when it comes to bedtime. His wife Kathy (played by Jennifer Connolly) is so focussed on her career during the day, and her child at night, that she has squeezed Brad out.
A third parallel is the way these three are driven by their desires, and it perhaps here that Todd Field’s film is at it’s most sharp. Whereas we readily accept Ronnie is driven by his unhealthy desires, in spite of the consequences, Field also portrays Sarah and Brad in a similar way. There is an inevitability about the path they are moving along, they are caught in the moment, unable to see the consequences of the broken marriages and estranged children that may result if they pursue their current course. Even in those “moments” they are unable to see past their desires. Sarah’s daughter is not good at sleeping during the day, yet Brad and Sarah have sex with no thought that they might be interrupted at any point.
The idea of “the moment” is actually introduced in the opening few shots. The very first shot features the world whizzing past as if the viewer is watching form a train or a car. Quickly there is a cut to a series of shots of figurines and various clock faces. Time whizzes past, but it consists of a series of moments, and the decisions that we make in each one are crucial to the whole. The affair between Brad and Sarah started when, in a moment, he kissed her, but it continues because of a series of small decisions to go with their desires. We know this course of events is going to go badly, because right at the start of the film we see what happens when Sarah’s husband decides to submit to all his desires.
That scene is one of a number which contain very graphic sexual content, and at times this seems a little too much. There are a few such minor weakness in the film. Elsewhere, for example, the comparison with Madame Bovary seems a little too heavy handed, as if Field or source novel author Tom Perrotta have to spell it out for us in case we miss the connection. The other major distraction is Will Lyman’s narration. People that haven’t seen Dogville will no doubt find this quirky and unusual, but for anyone that has, it will be difficult not to compare Lyman’s narration with that of John Hurt.
The other character of note is Larry (played by Noah Emmerich). As Brad’s friend, and the vigilante set on ousting Ronnie he forms both the link between these two stories, and part of the film’s more caustic social commentary. Larry, a retired cop, is plastering posters around the neighbourhood with Ronnie’s face on them ostentatiously to warn the residents about the danger they face. But is he that becomes the real menace. In fact, though the posters claim to be the work of the Committee for Concerned Parents, the film indicates that Larry is the only member, and perhaps suggests that it is a similarly small minority stirring people up in our society in general. It is another impressive acting performance in a film crammed full of them. Without such delicate and complex portrayals Little Children might have fallen flat under the weight of it’s subject matter. As it is, the performances allow the film to pose some of the toughest questions of the year whilst never leaving the audience feeling lectured to.
Posted by: Matt Page on Friday Nov 10th, 2006
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