2006Director: Todd Field
Cast: Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly
ar too often I find myself defending Todd Field’s remarkable In the Bedroom against asperse accusations seeking to reduce it to the level of a mere revenge drama. Field’s work demonstrated a masterful grasp of the parallax of his story, shifting our sympathies as the film builds up to its gripping climax, positioning the victimizer as the victim. To be sure, Field handled it with the utmost subtlety, and perhaps that is why many overlooked it. Yet the ending decidedly conveyed a sense that his characters’ bloodlust inevitably trapped them within an animosity from which they would never escape.
I mention this because, with Field’s follow-up effort Little Children, I now find myself struggling to find any reason to defend the director. All those who argued Field’s sledgehammer approach to complex issues will find substantiation for their case here. Little Children isn’t just a sloppy film, it’s a naïve one. Gone is the subtlety of his previous work, replaced by broad strokes of embarrassing observation further complicated by the fact that, despite its haphazard approach, it’s extremely well directed.
The film, as far as I can ascertain, appears to be a satire of American suburban life. In some ways it smacks of the same triteness of a film like American Beauty, with its exaggerated character types that ultimately expose nothing particularly revelatory about “American culture.” Whether the blame falls solely on Field, or his source material, I cannot say—since I’ve never read the Tom Perrotta novel upon which this is based—although I suspect the latter, since Perrotta co-wrote the screenplay. In any case, even working with a mediocre novel can yield superior results with the right direction.
The story centers mainly on Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet), a character best summed up as a bored housewife. With her husband secretly spiraling downward into a lascivious obsession with an internet porn star, Sarah turns to neighborhood hunk Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) to satisfy her. Brad, meanwhile, has problems of his own that simultaneously lead him into the arms of Sarah. He’s a law school graduate having difficulties passing the bar exam. He feels emasculated by his wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), whose career as a successful documentary filmmaker eclipses their domestic life. As Kathy remains oblivious to their transgressions, Sarah and Brad dig themselves deeper by the day into this tawdry affair, holding some sort of unrealistic fantasy about running away together.
The events of the drama become further complicated when a convicted sex offender recently released from jail returns to his mother’s residence in the area. This sparks a controversy among the residents resulting in a number of fliers posted around town warning parents of this new threat. Considering that Field never positions this man as an actual threat to neighborhood children, I suspect that he imagined this aspect of his story to reflect the current level of paranoia and fear held by many Americans concerning national security. To that extent, he lays on the symbolism rather heavily depicting a scene in which the man visits the neighborhood pool causing an outbreak of panic that results in all the parents immediately removing their children from the water and subsequently staring in disbelief while the man continues to swim alone.
There are successful threads running throughout the story, but Field consistently usurps their impact by countering them will baffling, and often ill-advised revelations. The climax of the film is so contrived that I am at pains to even mention it. It appears almost as if Field was either unwilling to lead his narrative into darker territory, or else just couldn’t find a succinct manner by which to wrap up all his loose ends.
Interestingly, Field derives the most satisfying elements from this story involving the supposed sex offender. It marked the only point in the film where I felt genuine sympathy for a character. Conversely, Sarah and Brad come off as far too juvenile. I realize that the title Little Children attempts to illustrate the stunted emotional development of its central characters, but even with that in mind, it remains a little hard to swallow. Not the either character needs to be likeable in order for Field’s narrative to work, but he should at least aim their level of frustration just above the point at which the characters become unbearably inane.
What we’re ultimately left with is film that incorporates all the bad elements of a screenplay like Magnolia, an unnecessary third-person narration akin to Von Trier’s Dogville, and social commentary just above the level exemplified in Crash. That pretty much sums up the emotional impact of Little Children. This marks the type of film Field should have slumped into after a few more successful ventures. Whether this indicates a weakness in Field’s future career or merely a brief step in the wrong direction, I cannot say. I suppose such is the consequence of spending the last five years supplying voices for a walking mold in Aqua Teen Hunger Force rather than focusing on perfecting his craft.
Little Children is currently playing in limited release.