Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Little Children / ***1/2 (2006)

Drastic tonal shifts are among one of the more difficult chords for directors to master in filmic orchestration, and in the wrong hands they can derail a story’s momentum just as quickly as bad acting or shoddy plot development. Sometimes that means they must become fluent on the tact of transitions in order to neutralize such opportunities, or at least become cognizant of their usage; because certain subject matters can emphasize extreme opposing values, it can be rare to move between sadness and laughter without the transitions feeling contrived, especially if they are used to exhausting indecency. I can only imagine what sorts of questions came to Todd Fields’ mind when he was confronted with those dubious possibilities in “Little Children,” and certainly it must have seemed like very foreign territory; having only directed the stark “In the Bedroom” up to that point, this was a man seemingly accustomed to the forlorn nature of premises where there could be no opportunity for lighthearted considerations. What was on his mind as he directed this picture, a suburban drama about dysfunctional adults behaving like irresponsible adolescents? Were those fragments of humor convincing in the screenplay, or did it require added effort to convey them plausibly?

If the mark of a talented craftsman is in facing challenges without obvious struggles, then this is one whose endeavors place him among the born naturals. Most who will find hindrances with the material will not be doing so because of the decisions made by those behind the camera – rather, their discomfort will come from deep within, where a little voice must inevitably chime in that we aren’t allowed to find some things funny. Indeed any basic plot description of “Little Children” ought to suggest that. Here is a movie about characters that are bored, listless and vulnerable to temptations, all living in a world where the safety of their paralyzing monotony is threatened by the presence of a sex offender moving in nearby. These are deadpan considerations brought to fervor by the subjugation of personal ideals, and because their nature does not require them to understand risks, that makes their antics almost comical to observe. That a movie can inspire smirks in the same scene where a potential predator is seen scuba diving in the community swimming pool underneath hundreds of young children is one of the most notable feats of any modern motion picture.

All of those ideals come to certainty as the characters are gradually assembled. Out in the front is Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet), a frumpy and bored housewife who spends most of her waking moments caught in a dreary routine: taking her young daughter (whom she doesn’t even seem to like) for afternoon rendezvous in the park, and visiting with a cluster of female mothers who seize the opportunity to gossip about neighbors. Their shtick involves all the cliché passive-aggressive judgments that are a staple of suburban satires; in a scene where Sarah forgets to pack her daughter an afternoon snack, she is cheerfully chastised between the fake smiles. But their collective ambivalence is stirred by the presence of Brad (Patrick Wilson), a handsome father who shows up with his son to the park almost daily but speaks to no one – that is, until Sarah pursues an initiative to befriend him, much to the displeasure of the others. The common bond in that moment (and therefore the remainder of the picture) is that both characters are caught in stagnant marriages and are alien to their children; he a teenager at heart who had to grow up too young, and she stifling silent desires like Madam Bovary, who acts as a fetishistic implication of what is possible with her handsome new playground consort.

At home are the embodiments of their tedium. Brad’s wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) is a documentary filmmakers always out to work, leaving her husband – who is studying to pass the Bar exam on a third attempt – alone all day with their son. Sarah’s husband Richard (Greg Edelman) constantly stows away in upstairs offices, usually while masturbating to images of naughty maids on the Internet. As the friendship between the two grows via the consistency of their daily interactions, soon it becomes clear that they are destined to act on one another’s allure. She starts wearing flattering bathing suits to the pool. He takes up playing football at night with a group of police officers. And somewhere in between it must lead them down the road of lust, and there are side contexts that fluctuate between sincere and cruel; when she asks Brad if his wife is pretty, his sharp response (“Beauty is overrated”) serves to negate her own, inspiring unease in the moment (and perhaps laughter from an audience who has just as hard a time accepting Winslet as anything less than beautiful).

For Field, the movie plays like the next lesson in his evolution as an observer in volatile human interest. “In the Bedroom” gave him the chance to reveal and penetrate to the core of people involved in a vicious cycle of pain, abuse and revenge; in “Little Children,” he has to juggle the awakenings of characters who seem to function like overgrown teenagers, all while dealing with the strange stories going on in the side pockets. If one is to describe the events above while notating that there are three additional supporting players with equally strange histories here, would that feel convoluted? Most directors would allow the situation to go off the rails; Field modulates between them so effectively that he creates a rather sweeping scope of his setting, a world where social norms are offset by the realization that no one knows how to act their age. Is it at all surprising that a former cop (Noah Emmerich) becomes so obsessed with the presence of a pedophile named Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley) when his own retirement came about because of a kid’s death that happened at his hands? Or that the lonesome Ronnie agrees to go on a blind date to satisfy his dying mother (Phyllis Somerville), even though it is in his nature to belittle and then humiliate her as if she was a helpless child?

The underlying curse of suburban lifestyle is that it reduces civilians to vague indications of themselves, allowing them to sleepwalk through the motions while regarding their mistakes with misplaced validation. Fields’ movie takes the argument further: in a world where everyone behaves badly, is it worse to be a predator who knows he is dangerous, or an irresponsible spouse who internally rationalizes the hurt they might cause an entire family? There is a certain degree of resonance to this theory when the actors convey the ideals so enthusiastically. Both Winslet and Wilson do a tremendous job of earning our watchful eyes without necessarily becoming sympathetic victims of their tryst, and as a man reveling quietly in his dark nature, Earle Hayley is an ideal casting for Ronnie – not necessarily because he looks eccentric enough to satisfy the story’s requirements, but because he plays up that type in a way that matches the discomfort with some level of wonder. There is a rather shocking moment towards the end between he and Larry (the Emmerich character) that left me aghast; after enduring the torment of an angry and out-of-control loudmouth for such a lengthy duration of time, Ronnie is met with a moment where he could respond angrily, and yet simply turns his moment of emotion into a sacrifice of jolting depth.

There are no easy ways out for the characters of “Little Children,” but they aren’t defined by such purpose: in service to a grinding routine, fates can only be altered by the risks of indulgence, and then the selfless reflection of what it does to others. The details are only trigger mechanisms. Is this easy justification for why Field offers a third person narration through most of the film? I suspect so, otherwise direct retellings from any of the characters could have editorialized the perspective and diminished the revelations. In some way, the device reminded me of another great film about dysfunctional families – Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty,” which famously included the Kevin Spacey character spoiling the inevitability of his own death in voiceover. None of the people here are in need of such predictions, but they don’t need them; after a few minutes with the man who watches over their destructive slog, it is clear many of them are already close to being dead on the inside anyway.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama (US); 2006; Rated R; Running Time: 136 Minutes

Kate Winslet: Sarah Pierce
Jennifer Connelly: Kathy Adamson
Patrick Wilson: Brad Adamson
Jackie Earle Haley: Ronnie J. McGorvey
Noah Emmerich: Larry Hedges
Gregg Edelman: Richard Pierce
Phyllis Somerville: May McGorvey

Produced by Kent Alterman, Albert Berger, Toby Emmerich, Todd Field, Patrick Palmer, Leon Vitali, Michele Weiss and Ron Yerxa; Directed by Todd Field; Written by Todd Field and Tom Perrotta; based on the novel by Tom Perrotta

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