Childish Things

Todd Field sells immature condescension in Little Children

Josh Bell

It's still got some good performances, though, and Field (who's spent most of his career as an actor) is obviously most confident working with actors. At first, the set-up—with Kate Winslet as suburban mom Sarah, an overeducated housewife with nothing to do but ponder her lost potential and how much she resents both her young daughter and the other, less complex moms in her cozy little neighborhood—has promise. Winslet sells this rather unlikable characteristic with subtlety, at least until omniscient narrator Will Lyman kicks in, reading Perrotta's words in a snide, world-weary tone that suggests an extra cynicism to Sarah's point of view completely at odds with Winslet's performance.

The idea of the dissatisfied, regretful parent is one that's unexplored, at least sympathetically, in films about suburbia, but Little Children doesn't go that route, instead setting Sarah up with the typically distant, workaholic husband and putting her on the path to an affair with another local stay-at-home parent dissatisfied with his life, failed lawyer Brad (Patrick Wilson). Brad takes his young son to the same park that Sarah and her daughter attend, and after careful flirtation, the two end up meeting for afternoons of passionate sex while their respective spouses are away at work. In contrast to Sarah's insensitive, unavailable husband, Brad's wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly, rather wasted), is patient and kind, and a successful documentary filmmaker.

Meanwhile, in an underdeveloped subplot that often feels like it walked in from another movie, a paroled sex offender (Jackie Earle Haley) has moved into the placid town, and residents are concerned about the safety of their children. The scenes with Haley as his character tries to adjust to a normal life he knows he'll never have are both creepy and sometimes strangely touching, but they have little to do with the rest of the movie and don't receive enough screen time to constitute an equal second part. When the two threads sort of converge at the end of the film, it feels false, contrived to add weight and parity that just isn't there.

The same could be said for Lyman's voice-over, which does nothing other than rob the actors of the chance to express their character traits naturally. Told exactly what Sarah or Brad is thinking, we're left unable to interpret the looks on Winslet and Wilson's expressive faces any other way. Not surprisingly, what's successful in a novel is not the same as what's successful onscreen. Field also doesn't know what to do with Perrotta's dry sense of humor, and the moments that seem like they ought to be comedic just fall flat on their faces. An early montage explaining Sarah's husband's fetish for Internet porn (just about the only discernible character trait he gets to have) flashes past the embarrassing sexual secrets of several other people in an awkward stab at humor that defines the movie's ultimate lack of wit.

And then there's the ending, which backpedals from the early potential for exploration of theoretically unsympathetic viewpoints in such a moralistic, unfair way that it tarnishes the entire film. Rather than make an interesting character study, a bleak comedy about human failings or even a tired satire about the evils of suburbia, Field has merely looked down upon people trying to make sense of their lives, and judged them unworthy.

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