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September 12, 2006
Little Children

When a director makes a first feature as haunting and powerful as Todd Field’s “In the Bedroom”, following up must always be extremely challenging. In “Little Children”, Field keeps many of the elements that worked so well in his debut. There are undeniable similarities between the two features, most notably in its moments of gripping darkness. Yet with “Little Children”, Field seems to have a greater confidence as a director. He blends several tones and is not afraid to play with the actual process of filmmaking. The effort is far from perfect. But damn if it isn’t doesn’t flirt with magnificence and manage to be haunting, captivating and amazingly entertaining.

Field was smart enough to cast Kate Winslet in the pivotal role of Sarah. It’s truly one of the best creations of her career. As an atypical member of her neighbourhood group of stay-at-homes moms, Winslet takes a role that could easily end up as a character impossible to care about. She makes her extraordinarily relatable, portraying the deep longing within her character while also exquisitely conveying the factors that keep her where she is. Yet she does so without ever resorting to showboating, which so many actresses would be tempted to do with such a difficult role. Instead, she allows other actors to play off her, improving their work, and benefiting the film as a whole.

Patrick Wilson’s Brad is a fascinating character as well. As the neighbourhood stay-at-home dad, Wilson conveys the great inner conflict going on in this man. He loves his wife. He loves his son. But he’s unfulfilled, wanting something more than being a full-time caregiver to an only child. Yet he’s certainly not sure he wants to be a lawyer, choosing to not take seriously his third attempt to pass the bar exam and rather spend time playing sports.

The inevitable affair that springs up between the two characters could easily have ended up soapish or cringe-inducing. Yet the two actors – under the watchful eye of this extremely skilled director – make their actions so understandable and believable. The developments within their liaison are equally so.


Yet this is far more than a simple tale of infidelity. For a recently released sexual offender has moved into the neighourhood. Played eerily by Jackie Earle Haley (in what could be the comeback story of the year), ‘Ronnie’ seems like he could be a character easily botched in realization. Yet underplayed, soft-spoken and hated by everyone except his eternally loving mother (an absolutely wonderful Phyllis Somerville), Ronnie becomes incredibly human and sympathetic. And the viewer never once feels bad for considering him as such. Might I add that Haley’s name received considerable applause after the film (not as much as Winslet but on par with Wilson), with both leads going out of their way to praise him during the Q&A.

Alas, the neighbourhood is not so understanding. Noah Emmerich’s Larry – a cop ‘retired’ due to mental health issues resulting from a massive mistake he has made on the job – is determined to make Ronnie’s life as miserable as hell. Larry, a man sinking more and more into loserdom, also happens to invite Brad to join the police officers’ football team. As you can imagine, storylines begin to cross over.

Seldom does a film have five characters as well written and truly relatable in spite of serious character flaws as the ones played by Winslet, Wilson, Emmerich, Haley and Somerville. The actors, Field and Perotta must all be congratulated for fashioning such layered and compelling individuals.

After the film, Patrick Wilson mentioned the film having “six or seven truly great roles, something you never see these days”. I assume he’s talking about Jennifer Connelly and Gregg Edelman, playing the spouses of Brad and Sarah. I wish he was right about this. Edelman is hardly in it, disappearing from the film for extremely long periods of time; I’m hesitant to even call him a substantial character much less a developed one with any sort of arc. Connelly has a respectable amount of screentime but is frankly wasted in an very boring role that any competent actress with the right looks could have portrayed. This is really a shame because the film does hint at layers to her character and with just a tiny bit more screentime and better writing, her role could have been on par with the aforementioned five players and added yet another layer of complexity to the film. As is, the role asks absolutely nothing out of her.

As mentioned above, the plot starts to get complicated soon enough. Yet Field doesn’t rush the story at all, taking time to build characters and atmosphere. And throughout all of this, the film is in no way a vehicle for nothing but depression (“In the Bedroom”, for all its merit, was a truly disturbing film to watch, if also an utterly compelling one). In fact, “Little Children” manages to be wickedly funny and entertaining, satirizing not only many aspects of characters’ personalities, but also broader suburban life as a whole, not to mention the nature of relationships between men and women.

On paper, the film might seem eerily akin to “Desperate Housewives”. And, oddly enough, it starts out with more similarity than is comfortable. Yet certain clichéd female characters fortunately leave the film (for all intents and purposes) soon enough. And then we never really think of this problem again except when they occasionally show up. Rather, the humourous aspects of the film are much more appropriately satiric.


Field is unafraid to shift tone in the film and while this is not done flawlessly, it nevertheless makes for a film experience that works on many levels. The film manages to be at times terribly sad, at others shockingly horrific, at still more hilariously entertaining and at others honestly observant. And considering the layers in the story, that’s oh so appropriate.

Field and Perotta’s script does make the rather odd choice to employ the little used cinematic technique of third-party narration. This is a technique that I find seldom works. Here, it leads to some moments of brilliance…and some moments of ‘why?’. The narrator gets some of the film’s biggest laughs and provides insight into characters’ minds. Yet he also says things that really do not have to be said, indicating writers' lack of faith in the audience. Regardless, this was in many ways a risky technique to employ and while it’s not always successful, it’s nevertheless interesting.

One element of filmmaking that does not really work at all, however, is Field’s use of train, doll and clock motifs. It’s just too obvious. And at times annoying. He’s not up with the greats just yet, even if he’s showing promise of getting there.

The ending may end up a cause of some divisiveness. And it's probably not perfectly realized. But the tragedy is appropriately felt while a considerable deal of hope is offered. And I left satisfied.

With some minor tinkering “Little Children” could have been the masterpiece so many think it is. Yet rarely does a film come along so gripping, fascinating, relatable, suspenseful and entertaining. And prior to my viewing of a certain other film earlier this morning, it was the best film of the festival thus far.

The audience seemed quite appreciative though not altogether bowled over (if they may just have been shocked). I've yet to speak to anyone who saw it at the screening I went to. Though Kate Winslet received considerable applause during the end credits, with Wilson and Haley receiving a healthy dose of it as well.

As for the Q&A, the questions weren't mind-blowing (one was asking Wilson to give her sister a birthday hug). Winslet sure knows how to charm an audience (finishing answers to questions that Field left incomplete) with Wilson obviously proud of the film. Field, on the other hand, was obviously uncomfortable, stutterring and taken aback by some of the questions. Though in all fairness, he was probably nervous as all hell.


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