Review written by Nathan Vass
There's something about the sound of a train in the distance. It reminds you that your world is small and somewhat insignificant, and that there are a myriad other things going on behind the closed doors of other people's lives. It makes one realize the existence of the bigger picture.
The distant train is a sound heard often in Todd "In the Bedroom" Field's new film, Little Children. The film takes place in a quiet Massachusetts suburb and follows a number of local characters, but focuses mainly on neighbors Sarah (Kate Winslet) and Brad (Patrick Wilson), both stay-at-home parents. The film is an ensemble piece, and also explores the lives of several other individuals (Sarah's porn-addicted husband, Brad's domineering wife, a just-released pedophile, his doting mother, his hate-filled neighbor, and some other local mothers and skateboarders) tangentially related to the two main characters. Performances all around are truly outstanding, allowing us to empathize with largely unsympathetic characters. Particularly worthy of note is Jackie Earle Haley's astonishing portrayal of the local pedophile, who manages to elicit both repulsion and sympathy from the viewer. Although the milieu and situations may appear superficially similar to Sam Mendes' American Beauty, Todd Field is concerned with more than just satirizing yuppie life. This isn't to say Little Children is a better film than Beauty (it isn't), but it is certainly more ambitious. This film is quite different from any other adult drama I've seen.
The film avoids the pitfalls of the now cliché "normal neighborhood with dark undercurrent" genre by abandoning traditional narrative structure (the plot meanders around its many characters, giving the impression that we're observing real people acting of their own accord, and not driven by plot points) and displaying a distinctly literary air. More than any film I've seen, with the possible exception of Barry Lyndon, this one best recaptures the feeling of reading a novel. The characters and situations are unusually nuanced and thought provoking, and the film even has God-like third-person narration to supply the "internal" character information usually exclusive to written literature. Against all odds, this narration works perfectly, and provides some of the film's best laughs. Interestingly, Barry Lyndon, by Stanley Kubrick, also used third-person narration; Field worked for Kubrick as an actor in Eyes Wide Shut. That Field has been able to meld the opposing mediums of literature and film so well, without abandoning the strengths of either, is a testament to his abilities as a filmmaker. He maintains the internal complexities of a great novel and at the same time exercises cinema's external storytelling strengths to terrific effect. The 2.35 compositions are very cinematic and represent a significant stylistic step forward from In the Bedroom.
There is a certain aura of mystery about quiet suburbs in the middle of the day. It's the time when the familiar surroundings are at their most vacant and unsupervised. Those of us who work during the week know that on a rare non-holiday weekday off, the home and its environs take on a slightly different atmosphere. Certainly many a working man has wondered what goes on in that world, which he is almost never privy to. Although Field's film doesn't take place solely in the midday hours of the suburb, the presence of a deep atmosphere is pervasive. The use of subtle ambient tones, the aforementioned train noise, languid pacing and spectacularly accurate diffused "daylight" lighting contribute greatly to a tangible feeling of a fully realized world. The believability of this environment allows us to accept the frequently bizarre actions and decisions the characters make, who are as flawed as the rest of us- the title refers not to the toddlers of the story, but the adults. All the while, the God-like narrator, and by extension the film, observe the idiocy of its characters with benevolence and understanding.
This is a difficult film to review. Were I to offer a synopsis detailing the various romantic entanglements of its characters, I would likely make the film sound like a trite derivation of many superior films with similar subject matter. That is not the case. There is much more going on here than can be articulated immediately after seeing the film; it has a certain elusive pull, an intriguing hyper-reality that lingers in the viewer's mind. The film perfectly fuses satire and serious drama, and has a strong, unique atmosphere, but it ends on an odd muted note that left me dissatisfied on first viewing. However, I think this was the result of my own miscast expectations, mainly from seeing Field's previous film, In the Bedroom, which has a supremely gratifying ending. This story contains such unique situations and complexities of character that it can't be resolved as neatly as that film was; Field is attempting something much deeper here. Little Children is largely about the concept of yearning, usually the unsatisfied variety, in all of its various incarnations. Thus, the film's superficially unsatisfying conclusion is thematically appropriate and thus, satisfying on a deeper level. Like a great novel, Little Children offers all the pleasures of a thought-provoking, challenging, and ultimately rewarding piece of art.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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