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Little Children

Drama movie directed by Todd Field

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Excellent character study (also a well made feminist piece)

  • May 24, 2007
Pros: Acting--particularly the children, a complex but always engaging story

Cons: Nothing comes to mind

The Bottom Line: Ms. Winslet got an Oscar nod, but this film was almost totally ignored otherwise and that is a shame. It is worth all the time necessary and then some.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie''s plot.

Little Children is set in a bedroom community for Boston, in other words a suburb. It seems to be largely controlled (at least from the beginning) by two literary references from works relatively contemporaneous with each other. You can be pretty sure that one of the main themes of a suburban story is the famous: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” from Thoreau’s Walden. Another literary image appears in the film. During a fairly contentious book club meeting, Sarah (Kate Winslet), a literary scholar, explains that Madame Bovary (Gustav Flaubert) is about a woman who made a mistake in marriage, but rather than succumb to the unhappiness she goes screaming against it and seeking at least solace. For a decent portion of Little Children these two ideas function; but as the season changes from summer to autumn, so do the circumstances. What begins as a comedy of errors gradually becomes something quite different.

The answer to leading a life of quiet desperation only works if you aren’t concerned with money and family. It took a rather bombastic philosophe to be able to say much of what he did with a straight face. In the end, he died of TB before the age of 45. Emma Bovary couldn’t snatch enough happiness or solace and ends up killing herself. Gustav Flaubert was tried for indecency. The fantasy or imagination are one thing, reality has a rather harsh way of reminding us of this.

Little Children is a complex, engaging, and intermingled story, because of this the summary will be very high level. The movie examines two relationships: Sarah and her daughter Lucy (Sadie Goldstein) befriend Brad (Patrick Wilson), a stay at home dad, and his son Aaron (Ty Simpkins). Their story revolves around the affair they have that lasts the better part of the summer. Related to their relationship are the real spouses on whom the cheat. Brad’s wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) plays a far larger role in the story than does Sarah’s husband Richard (Gregg Edleman). Sarah is a frustrated scholar whose daughter is ‘an unknowable little person.’ Brad is a frustrated youth in that his youth ended too soon with the death of his mother. The relationship between him and Aaron does not run into the same strange distance of Sarah and Lucy.

The second relationship is a counterpoint to the Sarah/Brad narrative on many levels, but at the foundation they share several themes. Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley) has been released from a 2 year stint in jail for indecent exposure. A retired policeman, Larry (Noah Emmerich) is the sole member of a group of ‘concerned citizens.’ He spends massive amounts of time plastering a flier with McGorvey’s mug shot on it. He also spends large amounts of time tormenting Ronnie and his mother May (Phyllis Somerville).

Each main storyline starts out being a comedy of manners and errors, but the more time passes the less funny the story becomes. Anymore would give away too much of this fantastic film.

Plot spoilers in the analysis

There is a unique touch that made the film wryly funny. Will Lyman is the narrator of most Frontline documentaries on PBS and is also used for other relatively hard hitting documentaries. It was a touch of brilliance for director Todd Field to use Mr. Lyman to narrate this film. At once it made the simple lives of these village folks more alluring while also allowing you to keep them at arms length as if you were just watching an anthropological film.

At its most basic, Little Children is a story about misfits. The main misfit story involves Sarah who is not in the ranks of the supermoms controlled by a particularly opinionated virago. Lucy does not play with the other children but is not excluded; she just seems to prefer to be alone. Brad is the only stay at home dad. He is very handsome, but the virago controlled klatch only refer to him as the prom king; none of them had the guts to find out his name. Brad is content to be on the opposite end of the park and Aaron is fine with his father as friend.

Sarah meets Brad while pushing their children on swings. Sarah had been bet that she couldn’t get Brad’s phone number. Instead she suggests a hug then a kiss—this last was something that caused the park biddies to scramble up their children because a little hug and a peck on the lips offended their rigid prudishness.

The kiss brings to the surface issues that bother Sarah and Brad. For Sarah it is that she is a reluctant mother with a distant husband. For Brad it is that his wife has certain expectations of him that he doesn’t have for himself. Sarah tries to quash the feelings by continuing a moderate scholarship in between Lucy’s demands. Kathy believes that each night Brad goes to the law library to study for the bar (which he failed twice before). Instead he gets caught, moth-in-web style, at a school where teenage skateboarders perform their tricks; their youthful abandon or even just ignorant momentum reminds him of the things he did not or could not do.

When Sarah catches her husband in the middle of a very odd digital affair with an online porn model (Slutty Kay), Sarah has an excuse to explore whatever possibilities exist with Brad, so she begins going to the town pool where she knows Brad and Aaron spend most afternoons. It starts out just as an uneasy friendship and develops suddenly into a daily affair. The problem is that as it continues, Sarah seems to know what its limits will be but Brad does not. Sarah sees the ‘change can be as good as a rest’ facet of affairs—her motive seems more related to his beauty than anything else. Brad sees a possibility to recapture some of his lost youth; Sarah isn’t the ‘knock-out’ that is Kathy, but Sarah supports him openly and enthusiastically. For him the fantasy of hero worship of a man who seems to have been emasculated by circumstances of his own vellity and his wife’s desires for him.

Brad, quarterback of the losingest football team in a night league makes a touchdown so they wouldn’t go winless. Sarah goes berserk, the only fan in the stands. He all but begs her to run away with him and she finally consents. They begin to do it in a good faith effort, but being with their children during the setup forces an end to the fantasy. Lucy briefly disappears while Sarah waits for Brad in the park. Brad wakes Aaron and says goodbye to him. On his way to the park, once again a moth, Brad allows himself not only to be distracted by the skaters but to try it himself.

There are two very notable things about this storyline. The first is that Aaron and Lucy are very young; however, Mr. Field doesn’t seem to settle for a child only able to recite their lines as if reading them for the first time. They are emotive. Ms. Winslet and Mr. Wilson react to the children who then react to the adults so that what we see is something much closer to real than not. I’m not sure what method parents and handlers had to use on these very young actors, but it works.

The second is the prominence of the man’s wedding ring. If there is a man’s left hand in a scene, the ring is clearly visible. Even in night scenes, it is as though there is a special light meant to shine only on that small band of digital real estate. In general the ring is meant as a promise to the ring-mate and as a warning to the general public. Larry’s wife leaves him so the promise of his is broken even if they are still married. Richard also broke a promise, but there seems to be an uneasy truce between him and Sarah. For Brad it is neither a reminder nor a warning, but more like a collar so long used to that he doesn’t even take it off when he can. The women’s ring fingers are on display but not in the same way. This points more to the Walden/Bovary connection than anything else.

Ronnie McGorvey served 2 years for indecent exposure to a minor. Exposure is the lowest level ‘sex offence’ anyone can be charged with. The ‘victim’ simply sees something that is ordinarily hidden, but most people, including children, have seen the ‘naughty bits.’ It is truly laughable that the village would get so upset by Ronnie’s incident. What he did was criminal, but the level of overreaction far exceeds the extent of the crime. Essentially it is only one man who keeps the community at any level of fear. But it is such that the virago of the kiddie klatch wants him castrated—others say the same thing (this is the equivalent of having your eyes poked out because you whistled at a woman). None of the kiddie klatch lives in the neighborhood with Ronnie, just nearby. Their reactions are those of people who have all the time in the world to worry themselves and everyone else because they don’t have to work. They are ladies who lunch in the making; and heaven knows we need fewer of those.

A pivotal scene in the movie is when Ronnie goes to the town pool with snorkeling gear. He gets in unnoticed and swims so he can see girls in their bathing suits. Finally he is noticed and all parents pull all kids from the pool as if Ronnie carried a deadly virus. What is most telling is that the parents and children circle the pool right at the edge. If he were truly dangerous, would they stand that close? Would people who could not be on the edge itself try so hard to see what was happening? He is led from the pool and the instant the police flank him, everyone jumps back in the pool as if the world had just been put on pause.

Misfits are not welcome in the suburbs (the writer included); not living in the city, suburbanites look at the city as a place of constant danger; not living in the country, they don’t know everyone and realize who is just harmlessly different. This is one of the major reasons I will never, by choice, live in a true suburb again. Ronnie is more misfit than he is dangerous. He is weird as all get out, but he isn’t truly dangerous. The overreaction it, I believe, a symptom of the suspicions that run a peculiar engine in all suburbs I have ever seen.

Ronnie’s story is a jarring counterpoint at times. In stark contrast, Ronnie and May are very unattractive people in a movie otherwise populated by at least average, but more typically very attractive people and children. Their relationship is something strange, but not grossly so. May treats her 40+ year old son tenderly and lovingly as Brad does with Aaron. Ronnie also still calls his mother ‘mommie’ like Lucy and Aaron which is creepy but nothing more.

Larry is a cop retired basically for disability reasons. He shot a 13 year old kid who was playfully waiving around a toy gun. The result of the shooting was severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Because of this, or because he is just a sad-sack in the first place, Larry is a creator of bad ideas. He takes it on himself to warn the neighbor of the pervert in their midst. No one who lives near the McGorveys seems to care at all. After a frustrating evening, Larry goes to the McGorveys, where he spends portions of every day watching from his mini-van. This time, he pulls out his bullhorn and starts screaming through it to the neighbors. May tries to wrestle the bullhorn from Larry and has a heart attack in the exchange. The neighbors care for May and are angry at Larry who ‘is scaring the children.’ Those living near the McGorveys seemed to have made their peace with the situation

The heart attack is what changes the tone of the movie from comedy to something more akin to realism than anything else. May dies and leaves behind a note for Ronnie that just says ‘Please be a good boy.’ Ronnie has what my friends and I refer to as a come-apart. He grabs a knife and runs off. Larry confronts Ronnie in the park where the movie begins and apologizes saying he never intended for ‘anything like that’ to happen. Here he notices that Ronnie is bleeding. Ronnie then drops his pants to reveal a bandaged pubis—he had castrated himself. Larry then rushes Ronnie to the hospital, referring to him as ‘buddy’ several times.

Brad returns to Kathy. Sarah learns how to get to know the little unknowable person. Larry realizes that a mouth can be as dangerous as a gun and affects what he can to atone for it. The ending is tidy, but I never felt cheated despite usually not liking tidy endings.

The title doesn’t refer to Lucy and Aaron and their ilk. While Richard has his strange affair with Slutty Kay, the narrator says that Richard’s philosophy is that desire what it is and you either squash it or give into it but halfway is not really a position to be in. Sarah, Richard, Brad, Ronnie, and Larry all follow this philosophy; they are the little children in the title. The kiddie klatch purposely avoid such and consider themselves adults for that reason (ascesis, especially one that is bitterly transmitted verbally, is the hallmark of adulthood for the klatch). Impulsiveness is something kids learn and parents have to mitigate (but hopefully not kill), so children wanting what they want is normal. Little Children’s eponyms are all adults in age but childish in their impulsiveness.


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More Little Children (2006 movie) reviews
review by . December 17, 2008
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Little Children provides a dark, realistic and melancholy look at suburban life in the 21st century.  The film was based on the acclaimed novel by Tom Perrotta and directed by In the Bedroom director Todd Field.   Meet Sarah (Kate Winslet), a sad housewife who buries herself in novels to escape the blandness of her daily life.  Her marriage is a sham, and to avoid her porn-addicted husband, Sarah spends most of her time at the neighborhood park or pool with her daughter.  Sarah …
review by . December 05, 2008
This is one of those movies (like Shop Girl) that is so obviously an adaptation from a novel that you almost feel as though you are reading as it progresses. This is due, in large part, to do the voice-over narrative, but also to the complexity of the relationships and the feeling that perhaps we've missed something and should go back and read more carefully.  Little Children is, primarily, a love story between two stay-at-home spouses who bond over their dissatisfaction with the perceived …
review by . July 19, 2008
Pros: Kate Winslet's performance.      Cons: See Review     The Bottom Line: Little Children is a power reminder of the consequences of not growing up can be, or could be, and that is a lesson never to be lost.      Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot. Kate Winslet is far and away my favorite Hollywood actress. Her roles are almost always bold, daring and engaging; Mistress Kate is unabashed when it comes …
review by . June 13, 2007
I have to say that while in some ways it was a disturbing story; it was also very touching in a lot of ways. The first thing one will notice about the film will be the mood set via the lighting, and then of course the narrator Will Lyman, who is often used in documentaries but at times can be annoying. As a viewer you are immediately drawn into this storybook like atmosphere in a non-traditional storybook sort of setting and the quirkiness and underlying humor keeps you hooked.    I …
review by . May 12, 2007
One of the greatest things about LITTLE CHILDREN is the way it beautifully captures the feel of the novel upon which it is based. Yes, the author co-wrote the screenplay...but more than that...the film leaves certain items out of the book (to save time) and changes some plot points...but the overall flavor is wonderfully captured.    But the absolute greatest thing are the performances of the two Oscar nominees...Kate Winslet and Jackie-Earle Haley. Winslet plays a very easy …
review by . May 07, 2007
In spite of its three Academy Award nominations, I had not heard of this movie, came across it merely by browsing the shelves at my neighborhood video store. Since I've been seeing quite a few Kate Winslet movies of late, most of which have ranged from interesting to impressive, I rented the movie on the strength of her name. Good decision. "Little Children" at this point ranks, in my mind, as Winslet's best performance to date.     The various intertwining plots of this movie, …
review by . May 03, 2007
LITTLE CHILDREN is one of the finest films of the past decade, a film that is intensely intelligent in concept, in writing, in acting, and in production values. It is rare to find a film so right in every aspect, dealing with aspects of living we'd all rather overlook while at the same time recognizing bits and pieces of ourselves and of those around us in manner that contributes to the frightening credibility of the story.    Todd Field, so highly respected for his previous …
review by . March 19, 2007
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Kate Winslet operates at a galaxy-class level inLittle Children, Todd Field's gratifyingly grown-up look at unhappy suburbia. Winslet is magnificent, in an Oscar-nominated performance, as a stroller-pushing mom who becomes attracted to a passive househusband (Patrick Wilson). Their slow-burning infidelity (Field wisely allows time to pass in this unhurried film) is contrasted with a more sensational subplot, about a convicted pedophile (Jackie Earle Haley, also Oscar nominated) returning to the neighborhood to live with his mother (Phyllis Somerville). Field, who brought his civilized approach toIn the Bedroom, uses a deliberately literary style here, including a device with a narrator who sounds as though he's sitting at our side as he reads from Tom Perotta's novel. (The narrator is a superb touch--his cultivated voice distances us from the sloppy passions of the characters.) The film's biggest miscalculation is a self-appointed neighborhood vigilante (Noah Emmerich) determined to make life miserable for the pedophile. But Wilson is appropriately nebulous, Jennifer Connelly solid as his wife, and Haley (child star of theBad News Bearsmovies), as the creepy, childlike molester, found himself rediscovered after a long career layoff. There's decent acting here, but Winslet is in a zone of her own, with so much emotional honesty and subtlety of expression that she transforms a good movie into a must-see.--Robert Horton
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