Little Children

February, 2007, Drama

Directed by:Todd Field

Starring:Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Noah Emmerich, Jackie Earle Haley, Phyllis Somerville, and Gregg Edelman

Writer/director Todd Field’s oeuvre is tiny, but In The Bedroom, his 2001 directorial debut, produced a cult following that has eagerly anticipated this filmed version of Tom Perrotta’s book. Working from a script he co-authored with the novelist, Field’s examination of sexual suppression and adulterous suburban angst is handsomely shot, well acted, (two performances have been nominated for Oscars) and beautifully written (a nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay of 2006) but all this talented effort doesn’t begin to match the dramatic impact of his previous film. 

Sarah Pierce, (Kate Winslet) and her accountant husband Gregg share a lovely home and an uneasy marriage; their only child, daughter Lucy, continuously gets on Sarah’s nerves and her discovery that Gregg feeds his sexual fantasies on the Internet strikes her as a particularly perverse form of infidelity. She’s drawn to Brad Adamson, (Patrick Wilson) a Mr. Mom who frequents the local park with his son Aaron while Kathy, (Jennifer Connelly) the boy’s mother, supports their family by making documentaries. Brad’s completed law school but flunked the bar; uncertain of his future, he’s content to let Kathy mange their lives despite her condescending attitude towards his professional capabilities. But he’s intensely frustrated by her lack of response to his sexual needs, so with both time and opportunity present, Sarah and Brad drift into an affair. It fills his need for sexual release as well as her desire to sexually attract a man more appealing than her husband. 

This romance plays out against Brad’s participation in a summer- evening football league and the return to the neighborhood of Ronnie McGorvey, (Jackie Earle Haley) a convicted child molester. As his aging mother urges Ronnie to try to establish a mature sexual relationship via personal ads in the newspapers, Larry Hedges, one of Brad’s teammates, mounts a vicious campaign intended to rid the community of Ronnie’s presence.

Sarah’s frustration as a wife and mom, Brad’s compliancy coupled with his need for affirmation, Larry’s anger and Ronnie’s dysfunction finally converge after the last game of the season to produce a resolution which impacts the lives of this disparate group in ways that range from new self-understanding to physical self-mutilation, but the sum of the parts doesn’t add up to a satisfying whole; Brad drifts back to the safe if maternally-inclined protection of his wife, Sarah finds new meaning in motherhood and Larry learns the price others pay for his vitriol, but despite generally superb work by the entire cast, the problems presented by these characters lack the authenticity of those in Field’s first film. A sense of contrivance hangs over the various storylines provided here, culminating in a plot resolution which doesn’t flow convincingly from the various actions which preceded it.

Ms. Winslet certainly deserves the Oscar nomination she’s received; her Sarah is terrifyingly needy and the actress provides her with a sexual appetite that’s alluringly sensual and perfectly calibrated to her character’s development. Haley, (long absent from the big screen until his performance earlier this year with Winslet in All The King’s Men) has the role of a supporting actor’s career as the sexually infantile Ronnie; he makes the most of it, delivering a predator who’s horrifying and vulnerable at one and the same time. Connelly and Wilson are adequate and Noah Emmerich’s Larry provides much-needed tension to the film’s principal sub-plot. But in the end, Little Children remains a soap-opera of middle class sexual dysfunction, and it’s hard to see what drove the director to spend the time and obvious care he invested in making it. 

The verdict? Field’s first film was a brilliant tragedy; Little Children however, never rises above the level of slick melodrama - - brilliantly presented perhaps, but melodrama just the same.

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