Friday, January 11, 2008

Who are Todd Field's Little Children?

In a series of intertwining scenes that make up the climax of writer-director Todd Field's movie - Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) loses her daughter in a park at night.

Frantic, she runs around looking for her and finally locates her, unmoving staring at a streetlight high above her, circling moths and all. She grabs her daughter, who never wishing to be confined in a car seat now scarcely protests at being put in one. And somewhere as her daughter's situation strikes Sarah's as metaphoric, she breaks down and sobs. Her daughter pats her on the head like you would little children and says "It's ok, Mom"

In Field's complex, layered "Little Children" Sarah joins three stay at home Moms every day in the park for play dates for her daughter. Enter Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) a stay at home Dad who brings his son to the same park. The women drool over Brad and one of them dares Sarah to get his phone number. Sarah does this and more - she elicits a hug from Brad that scandalizes the women.

Field very carefully goes about mapping the circumstances that contrive to ignite an affair between Sarah and Brad. His screenplay is solid, his staging of scenes is meticulous. Yet the story would have felt threadbare had it not been for a couple of actors.

First, Jackie Earle Haley shows up as Ronnie - a pedophile who is trying hard to be normal despite knowing he is fighting a losing battle. His story arc is tough and uncompromising and he does really well in this - eliciting our sense of horrified fascination instead of trying to squeeze us for empathy. This lends the movie a distinct edge and creates a fulcrum to hang the rest of the story (and large swathes of societal satire) to hang off. (Haley won an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his work here)

And second, Kate Winslet does a terrific job. She has mere on-screen moments to convince us that she would choose to scandalize her friends as she does in the early part of the film. Yet she manages to convey to us Sarah's sense of maladjustment among her friends, her possible contempt for them, her definite amusement at their daily talk, her sense of frustration at not being able to carve out a more intellectual and passionate life for herself. When the key moment arrives, you don't question the absurdity of it. (Winslet was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar)

"Little Children" is as much fun to watch as it is tough to sit through. While I didn't enjoy it's repulsion chic, I did get its necessity.

Also, I'm not a big fan of narration in movies: Wil Lyman's narration is supposed to invoke a sense of children's documentary in the movie - and despite an amusing interlude, where he imitates the voice over in HBO's Inside the NFL for a football game - it did nothing to change my mind about narration in big cinema.

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