Sex, Lies, and Swimming Pools
Little Children / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | October 16, 2006 | Comments ()
Writer/director Todd Field’s In the Bedroom was among the best films of 2001, and I’m not ashamed to say it made me a little misty. I saw it with a friend, and there was a Miramax rep there with comment cards, and while the two women behind us had a “Gawd, y’all, that was awful” reaction to Field’s haunting portrayal of love and loss, my friend and I were blown away by the film’s balance of heartbreak, hope, and the magnetic futility of vengeance. The most shocking act of violence isn’t one of the murders that bookend the film, but rather the single slap a mother issues the girlfriend of her dead son. In the Bedroom both empathized with its characters and didn’t shrink from displaying their flaws, making for a compelling drama. Which is what makes Field’s latest film, Little Children, so interesting, and almost confounding: The director hasn’t so much made a leap forward as he has ascended to a slightly higher vantage point from which to observe the woefully complex and ever-shifting relationships that populate modern America. The film is impossible to label, and I can’t get it out of my head.
That’s not to say it’s a perfect film. It is, however, a gripping, watchable one, that wastes no time in getting to the story. The film begins with an omniscient narrator who relates in brief the story of Sarah (Kate Winslet), a bored suburban mom in a generic whitebread New England hamlet who takes a bitter pride in not fitting in with the other mothers at the local playground. One day, Brad (Patrick Wilson) strolls into the park with his young son, his clean-cut, model’s looks catching the eye of the mothers, who refer to him as “the prom king.” Sarah strikes up a conversation with Brad as they idly push their kids on the swings, leading to an impulsive kiss that neither one plans but that both welcome. Sarah and Brad are both lonely people trapped in marriages that are crumbling for different reasons: Sarah’s well-to-do husband is nursing a healthy porn addiction and rarely leaves his den except to go to the office, while Brad’s wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), is a documentarian forced to carry the family financially as Brad repeatedly fails the bar exam. Sarah and Brad strike up an affair not just out of mutual physical attraction — these are, after all, mighty good-looking people, despite Field’s admirable efforts to turn Winslet into a dowdy pseudo-spinster — but because they, like children, are adrift in the world, searching for their own identities.
But there’s even more sexual tension running through the town, a muddy undercurrent poisoning what on the surface is just another idyllic summer. Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley) has just moved into the neighborhood, living with his mother after being paroled for exposing himself to children. Forbidden to go near parks, pools, or any place kids congregate, Ronnie is the mostly unseen ghost that haunts the nervous clusters of parents around town. Retired cop Larry (Noah Emmerich) has made it his mission to protect the children from Ronnie, going so far as to form a council for concerned parents, distribute flyers with Ronnie’s face, and spray paint “EVIL” across Ronnie’s sidewalk. More than merely escalating the sexual buzz in the air, Ronnie’s entering the neighborhood is Field’s way of saying all bets are off: After all, if he exposed himself, what’s to stop Sarah and Brad from engaging in a series of sweaty afternoon trysts in her attic? All manner of rules are being bent and broken.
Field walks a fine line between satire and parody, and for the most part succeeds at the former while skirting the latter. The sporadic narration gives the film a story-like feeling, as if the tale is one layer removed from reality, acted out with a conscious nod to its own artificiality. The humor, when it comes, is often mildly absurd: Sarah’s husband pleasuring himself while breathing through a woman’s thong he’s wrapped around his head is as notable for its bizarre comedy as it for its disturbing sexual nature. It’s just one more crack in the crumbling foundation of Sarah’s pathetically common life. The sharpest humor comes when Brad joins Larry’s night football team composed of off-duty policemen. At first an outsider astonished at the seriousness of the game, Brad becomes engrossed in the action, and the narrator’s monologue about Friday night lights and summer’s sweet victories skewer these men’s athletic delusions while also respecting them. Field’s mix of social satire and generational commentary is never stronger.
As Sarah, Winslet is endearingly neurotic, her attempts to throw herself at Brad at the town pool and her subsequent dependence on him more cute than anything else. But she’s really just throwing herself at the idea of Brad, of a possibility of running away to a paradise she’ll never find. Wilson, who’s catapulted from the dreck of The Alamo to the heights of Hard Candy in a few short years, is the most captivating character of the bunch, giving such a quietly realistic performance of a 30-year-old boy that it’s almost easy to overlook. Sarah is childlike in her need for solace and salvation, but Brad has never recovered from his mother’s death when he was in his teens, and, as such, he’s still a kid. He’s led into the affair by Sarah, even dragged into their first kiss, which he sits and recalls later like a boy, eyes closed, grinning. If she wants him so that she can feel alive, then he wants her because he doesn’t know what he wants. As they’re making love for the first time, Brad asks Sarah if she feels bad about what they’re doing, and she says she doesn’t. Brad replies, “Well, I do. I feel really bad.” But he doesn’t stop.
Based on Tom Perrotta’s novel, Little Children isn’t just another dark look at typical American neighborhoods. “I’m not interested in suburbia,” Field has said. “It’s boring. It’s been done to death. I saw The Swimmer and American Beauty. That milieu doesn’t interest me. I was interested in these people.” Little Children highlights the constantly fluctuating levels of parenting and maturity that wreak havoc when Gen-Xers start to procreate; namely, that extending adolescence into your 30s is bound to have negative consequences. Sarah and Brad have fooled themselves into thinking they’re capable parents because they can toss around phrases like “primary caregiver,” but they’re just playing at being grownups. Kathy mothers Brad but also seeks emotional and financial support from her own mom, while Larry and Ronnie each deal with the sins of their intertwining pasts and uncertain futures. The film isn’t as consistently assured of its tone as In the Bedroom, but its minor stumbles work, in a way, to its advantage: The story struggles to find its identity just as the characters do, and defines itself in the searching.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.