' Cinema Romantico: Little Children

Monday, October 23, 2006

Little Children

Todd Field is one of the most promising filmmakers we have had in a long time. "Little Children" is his second feature ("In the Bedroom" was his first, which I also admired for the most part). In our current climate of show-off filmmakers Field is a throwback. He trusts his story. He trusts his actors. He rarely moves the camera. If he does it is because it is necessary, which is to say he moves it for a reason. He has a masterpiece in him, I guarantee it. "Little Children" is not it. But it's still good. Very good. In fact, it's one of the best films of the year. If you're a fan of serious-minded cinema you should go see this at once.

The movie is about an affair that develops in suburbia between stay at home mom Sarah (Kate Winslet) and stay at home dad Brad (Patrick Wilson). Brad is dubbed "The Prom King" by the other mothers at the playground which they frequent each day. And one of the other mothers bets Sarah she can't get "The Prom King's" phone number. She doesn't, but she does get a hug and a kiss. And this helps to set the aforementioned affair in motion.

Hovering over all this is Ronnie McGorvey. He is a convicted child molestor just released from prison who has come to the suburban development to stay with his mother. The character in the film - just like in the book - could have easily been drawn over-the-top. Most movies would make him either an unredeemable monster or cast him a misunderstood, sympathetic light. But "Little Children" walks the middle ground. He is probably treated far worse than anyone ever should be but he is also clearly shown to be a diseased individual.

His mother (Phyllis Sommerville, in one of the movie's best performances) is, of course, in a bit of denial. She seems convinced a date with a nice girl will make everything better. Plus, they both have to deal with the Committee of Concerned Parents - spearheaded by Larry (Noah Emmerich), a friend to Brad, who plasters fliers all over town and shows up at Ronnie's house at night to taunt and bully him.

The reason I was drawn to the book so much was because of the complexities of the main character. Sarah is written quite consciously as someone who is not a very good mother. She's not a wretched mother. She doesn't beat her child or leave her locked in the car when it's a heatwave. But she neglects her. She's someone who seems not only not ready to be a mother but someone who may never have wanted to be a mother at all. At one point she takes her daughter to the town pool though it's clear her daughter is merely a pawn to allow her to get closer to Todd. This scene is masterful. Field doesn't force it and lets Winslet's acting (she keeps throwing looks in Brad's direction) do it all. And Winslet is phenomenal throughout as she pretty much always is. An Oscar nomination will be forthcoming, otherwise the cinema gods and I will have to hash it out.

But, really, there isn't anyone here who could be referred to as "parent of the year". Sarah's husband (a character who kind of gets the shaft compared to the book) is barely present in his daughter's life. Brad's wife is a documentary filmmaker who seems to have more feelings for the child in her film than the one she has at home. Larry's wife has just left him. Why?

"I called her a whore in front of the kids," he matter-of-factly tells Brad.

Yeah, that'd do it.

There is really only one major change from page to screen and it's a doozy. Let's put it this way, the most shocking moment in the movie (and, believe me, you'll know it when you see it) was not in the book. It does not fatally damage the film as the outcome of Sarah's plight is not changed but I don't feel it was necessary. The way the book concludes is far less upsetting and and perhaps it was Field's intent to upset. As shocking as at is, it does symbolize the conclusion of the film. But this isn't necessary. Field did the same thing at the end of "In the Bedroom". Why he's so obsessed with forced symbolism, I don't know, but it's the lone habit I wish he'd break.

The film (and the book) likens Sarah's plight to that of the main character in "Madame Bovary". But watching it yesterday made me think of a quote from a different movie. In "Before Sunrise" while Jesse and Celine are having one of their many conversations concerning love and life she says, "The answer must be in the attempt." Whether for better or way worse, the characters in "Little Children" are making an attempt.

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