Director: Todd Field
Starring: Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley
“It’s not the cheating. It’s the hunger. The hunger for an alternative and the refusal to accept a life of unhappiness,” Sarah explains, speaking as much about Madame Bovary as her own life. Little Children is a film full of unhappy people searching for a way out, another story in a long line of stories about suburban malaise. The problem with the film isn’t that its characters search for alternatives, it’s that after finding them, they opt to accept lives of unhappiness anyway.
Kate Winslet stars as Sarah, a stay-at-home wife and mother. She’s an outcast at the playground, existing on the fringe of discussion between the other mothers, who parent with efficient coldness, having finely tuned their children to very precise schedules which allow little room for variation. In comparison, Sarah is something of a mess, a mother whose style is perhaps best described as haphazard and, to a certain degree, desperate. The truth is that Sarah is unsuited for her roles as wife and mother, a fact driven home by the narrator who describes her as getting through her days by “counting down the hours.”
One afternoon a hush falls over the other mothers: the Prom King (Patrick Wilson), who figures heavily into their fantasies but to whom no one ever speaks, has returned to the park. His name is Brad and he and Sarah have an instant, albeit somewhat awkward, connection. Like her, he’s stuck, an emasculated stay-at-home husband and father who takes a backseat in all things to his wife (Jennifer Connelly), who holds tight to the purse strings and pushes Brad to take the bar exam for the third time, apparently unaware that he doesn’t really want to be a lawyer. The relationship which develops between Sarah and Brad is chaste until the tension between them explodes in a series of sexual encounters.
Running parallel to this story is the story of Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), a convicted sex offender whose release has stirred public indignation and widespread fear. Ronnie lives an isolated life with only his mother (Phyllis Somerville) to keep him company as he endures a barrage of harassment from an ex-cop (Noah Emmerich) who decides to make it his job to ensure that Ronnie never has a moment of peace. At various times, separately and together, both Brad and Sarah will come into contact with Ronnie, who indirectly impacts their lives in ways neither could have anticipated.
Throughout the narrative, Little Children alternates between bringing the audience right into the story with scenes of incredibly intimacy, and pushing us away with scenes designed to create an ironic distance. This mix gives the film kind of a lopsided feel, which is only exacerbated by the ending. Sarah and Brad are both unfulfilled in their marriages and manage to find something in each other which brings some light into their lives. In the end, though, they abandon each other and happily return to lives which made them miserable before and will, no doubt, make them miserable again. I’m not arguing that they should have ended up together, but rather that by having them return to where they started the film undermines its earlier message that it’s okay not to settle and to want more out of life.
Performance-wise the film is strong, though I’m at something of a loss to explain what attracted an actress as skilled as Jennifer Connelly to a character who ends up being such a non-entity. The two standouts are Haley and Winslet who, perhaps not coincidentally, have the two meatiest roles. Overall I’d say that the performances make the film worth seeing even though the film itself is a bit muddled.