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Reviews

October 6, 2006

Little Children

Powerful Winslet can't save Field's soapy suburban drama

Call it In the Attic. In Todd Field's Little Children, his first film since 2001's In the Bedroom, Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson are bored suburban stay-at-homes who find some semblance of excitement in each other's arms, most commonly while hidden away in Winslet's attic. And like the air in that attic, the film is stuffy and a little stale.

Little Children opens in a world of suburban parents unfulfilled by child rearing or homemaking. As the staging in their bedside photograph suggests, Wilson's Brad stands in the shadow of his successful filmmaker wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly). With no job and few prospects -- he's repeatedly flunked the bar exam -- he's a man in search of an identity outside his wife and son (his magazine subscription list: Sports Illustrated, Men's Fitness and Mothering).

Meanwhile, Winslet's Sarah finds her daughter "an unknowable little person." When most movie stars want to prove their merit as actresses, they pick roles that force them to look as ugly as possible, but in choosing to play Sarah as she does, Winslet has made a far more audacious choice. In Little Children she makes herself the one thing a movie star never wants to be: ordinary. With a mop of messy curls and a closet of K-Mart clothes, Sarah is a remarkably plain woman. In one scene, she joins a friend for a stroll through their neighborhood. Shot from behind so that we can't see Winslet's luminous face, powerwalking with her arms bent tightly and uncomfortably at the elbows, Winslet makes an undeniably convincing suburban housewife.

In the Bedroom worked as pulpy melodrama because Field worked small and made smart choices. In Little Children he takes chances that rarely pay off. At times he's shockingly obvious -- the neighborhood book club's discussion of Madame Bovary (and its relation to Sarah's affair) is as subtle as a fire alarm. At others, he's frustratingly obtuse; I can only speculate what Field intended with the lengthy and seemingly unnecessary -- not to mention tonally inappropriate -- NFL Films parody (To suggest what Brad's life could have been? As a sign of Brad and Sarah's increasing infantilization? A desperate attempt to break the cycle of soapy ignominy?). Field occasionally finds a poetic image to tell his story for him -- a glimpse of an empty stroller left out in the rain -- but too often his metaphors are clumsy, his supposed revelations about life totally banal (Example: "It's not about that. It's about skateboarding!").

The film is too well acted and too hot-buttony (it deals with pedophilia, therefore the film must be important) not to be a player in the Oscar race. The press notes request critics not discuss the film's ending, nominally to preserve its surprises, but also to ensure they do not divulge how utterly unsatisfying it is. Best to keep that stuff in the attic.

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Comments (2)

It is worth noting that the ending in the book is different than the one in the film. (In any case, neither ending works.)

As Andre says, the ending in the book does differ from that in the movie and neither works. I actually liked the book, thought it was more successful than the movie. But maybe it's the case of a story that has no appropriate ending.

In any case, the movie has huge problems. The narration is condescending, both to its characters (it turns them into anthropological studies) and audience (as if we couldn't figure out what was happening). The film is too melodramatic and when it tries to capture the satire of the book, it feels clunky.

That being said, for some reason, the movie has stayed with me since I saw it. A big part of that, I think, is the acting, which is terrific across the board. Kate Winslet is completely believable as a woman who looks down on the life that she leads. Her willingness to be unlikable actually makes her more sympathetic. Patrick Wilson transcends his good looks to get to the core of a man derailed by the fact that he should be leading a more "successful" life. But, to me, Jackie Earl Haley stole the show. Maybe I am bringing the baggage of The Bad News Bears (far and away the best sports movie ever made, in my opinion). To see this former athlete, this iconic young rebel reduced to a gaunt, bald outcast is painful. And it is made all the more painful because Haley does not ask for our sympathy, does not try to make us "understand" his character's pedophilia. Rather, he simply plays him as someone who has the possibility of goodness, but not enough strength to let it overcome his baser inclinations. He creates a character who is so profoundly an outsider, someone who has no hope of being understood. I think that, at bottom, that is what connects his character to Winslet's Sarah and what gives the movie its power despite its pronounced flaws.

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