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"I just bet those women that I could get your phone number."
"Sure. Wait, maybe if they saw us hugging." — from Little Children.
In Todd Field's Little Children, Sarah (Kate Winslet) finds herself bored and emotionally adrift as she watches her pre-school-age daughter Lucy (Sadie Goldstein) do what children do at a playground. Repulsed by and yet strangely envious of the three "perfect" suburban moms she's sharing a bench with, Sarah decides to blow their minds on a whim, by actually talking to the lone dad in the playground, an impossibly virile stud named Brad (Patrick Wilson), whom the moms have dubbed "The Prom King." He's a man they both lust after and shun, as if the mere presence of a stay-at-home, kid-tending dad was a rude comment on their visions of perfect motherhood, the kind that lays the ground for today's cuddly four-year-old to traverse an obstacle-free path to Harvard.
Naturally, Sarah and Brad quickly become an item, caught up beyond their own wildest expectations in a passionate physical affair that hides in plain sight behind the banal rituals of taking their kids to the municipal swimming pool. Soon, adjoining blankets in the shade beside the pool turn into rutting in the laundry room of the large house Sarah inhabits with her hubby Richard (Gregg Edelman). His job description is "branding" young consumers-in-training, but his real passion is cruising Internet porn sites, first at work, and later, to Sarah's astonishment, in their bedroom.
Little Children, adapted by Tom Perrotta from his novel, aims high and largely hits its targets: the sadly funny spectacle of youngish adults resenting the ball-and-chain duties of first-time parenthood, combined with a dead-on satire, which turns more than a little surreal, of an America drowning in fear and loathing over threats and enemies real and imagined. Early on, we see a vigilante response to the presence of a convicted child molester, Ronald James McGorvey (a sublime return to film-acting by 1970s child star Jackie Earle Haley from The Bad News Bears and Breaking Away ), led by a troubled ex-police officer, Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich).
Director Field delays McGorvey's entrance into the story until the second half of the film, then turns the spectacle of a balding, middle-aged man wading into a pool full of kids wearing a mask, a snorkel and diving fins into a grand set-piece that combines the creepy excitement of the hunt for Peter Lorre's child murderer in M with the slightly absurd, movie-scary delight of the arrival of the shark in Jaws .
For a film with a large, impeccably-chosen ensemble, three performances cry out for special praise. Todd Field says he first spotted Kate Winslet in her fearless take as the headstrong heroine attempting to erase her romantic past in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind . In Little Children, Winslet anchors her adulterous young mother in a bedrock decency that allows us to overlook how much Sarah is the author of her own very premature "midlife" crisis.
Patrick Wilson as Brad combines the drop-dead gorgeous yet thoroughly manly sensuality of the young William Hurt with a degree of self-awareness that keeps him from being merely stupid-pretty and allows him to be at least a partial moral center to the rollercoaster-like whiplash of the film's plot, with its crescendo-like ending that will divide the critical pews.
Jackie Earle Haley turns in a fully fleshed-out portrait of a parent's biggest fear: the not-so-reformed paroled sex offender. Haley neatly shifts between belligerent if mildly sympathetic momma's boy to sexual beast in a truly creepy moment alone in a car with a vulnerable blind date, played ironically by Jane Adams, the hapless romantic from Todd Solondz's Happiness.
For more than three-quarters of its 130-minute running time, Little Children neatly walks the tight rope between pointed satire (a narrator keeps us amused with a body count of each character's inner fears and demons, with the notable exception of Haley's exhibitionist) and the heightened melodrama of the third act, with its all-too-neat messy ending and its too-blatant delivery of each character's unavoidable fate.
Still, Little Children shines through its flaws to deliver some of this season's most adult entertainment, a chilly send-up of an America we can all see out our windows or through our video screens. In the end, Field and Perrotta justify their borrowing from Flaubert, as Sarah, trapped in one of those Oprah-like book clubs, remembers the passionate romanticism that informs her favorite heroine, Madam Bovary. "It's the hunger — the hunger for an alternative, and a refusal to accept a life of unhappiness."
It's taken Todd Field five long years to test filmmaking's sophomore-jinx theory: whether a highly praised first feature — Field's awesome 2001 transformation of an Andre Dubus short story into the spine-tingling, dread-inducing family-meltdown thriller In the Bedroom — invariably inspires retribution by critics and audiences the second time out of the box.
I ask Field just why he thinks the adulterous affair between Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson is so captivating, even to an erotically jaded, gay reviewer.
"I think affairs always have an allure to them because they are taboo. But it's a fairly superficial relationship based on the subversion of their own identities. Neither one of these characters has taken account of themselves yet, they're using each other as receptacles to somehow express the unhappiness that they're feeling, supposedly in their own marriages, but the truth is that they both made their own beds and they're lying in them. They're dangerous to themselves and to each other, ultimately because they haven't figured out who they are. Is there an intoxicating sense of intimacy between these two characters when they're upstairs and spending their afternoons together, certainly. But is there any long-term meaning in that? I don't know."
Field notes another thing that commands attention and skews people's opinion of Little Children is the employment of an off-screen narrator who confides little secrets about all but one of the major characters.
"I had never read Tom Perrotta's work before, [and I was struck] at how his third-person narrative drew me in — quite literally, his voice — and I wasn't keen on losing that. Also, every film I've made since school has been considered straight drama, and this book was not. I started reading it and found it funny, very amusing, and then about halfway through, not so amusing any longer — the way he couples satire with melodrama, and about halfway through, there's about a 90 degree tonal shift that lent itself to a framing device. Every character is given a moment, except for [Haley's] Ronnie, and that really sets him apart and isolates him. He doesn't enter the movie until about an hour-plus in — that's when you feel the narrator kind of step back and disappear for a while. It was very important that that character be up for grabs: through Larry Hedges, through his date with Shelia, through the eyes of his mother, but ultimately, through the eyes of the audience.
"The very slight evidence we have about that character is that he's this convicted exhibitionist, that he's exposed himself to a minor — that could be a 17-year-old girl or boy or younger, we really don't know. He's the central idea of fear that the other characters are grappling with."
Field acknowledges an odd kind of debt to Steven Spielberg for the great moment where Haley's Ronnie enters the movie and steps into the swimming pool full of kids.
"If the picture began with him entering the pool, we'd say there's a middle-aged man with a mask, a snorkel and some flippers, and he's swimming, and there's children, of course, because we're at a town pool, what's all the fuss about? So every glance he makes towards a child, we're immediately looking for meaning there. And yes, that field was first plowed — parental anxiety for their offspring in water, and something beneath that primordial water going to snatch their offspring — fortunately by a master, Steven Spielberg. We'll never be able to approach the magnificence of what he did with that film."