Little Children

During a key moment in Todd Field’s Little Children (IMDB), Sarah (Kate Winslet), a graduate student-turned-stay-at-home mom, finds herself discussing Madame Bovary at a book club. Most of the women in the book club, with one exception, are significantly older than Sarah, and as she is drawn into discussion, Sarah increasingly finds herself identifying with Flaubert’s famous adulterous heroine. Like Madame Bovary, Sarah finds herself stifled by her suburban life and bored by the other moms who typically serve as her companions at the local park where she takes her daughter, particularly one mom who insists on keeping her kids’ lives perfectly scheduled and who chides Sarah for her absent-mindedness.

Sarah’s boredom is interrupted by the arrival of the town’s one stay-at-home dad, the likable but blank Brad, a former college athlete who is seemingly emasculated by fatherhood and multiple failed attempts at the bar exam. Sarah and Brad bond almost by accident, hugging and then briefly kissing to shock the other moms who watch nearby before marching off in a huff of disapproval. But as they continue to talk, both Brad and Sarah become intoxicated as much by the thrill of escape as anything else.

Their story is countered by the better known but more marginal subplot about Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), a convicted sex offender, who is released into the custody of his mother who lives in the same suburb. A former police officer Larry harasses Ronnie by putting up posters about him and yelling insults through a megaphone on his lawn late at night). And while I found Earle’s performance powerfully sympathetic, I never found the coupling of these two plots fully convincing. AO Scott offers a more affirmative reading of the film, noting that Ronnie and Larry are as “deeply connected as Brad and Sarah: they are symbols of failure, frustration and the ineradicable consequences of what earlier Massachusetts townspeople would not have hesitated to call sin.”

Scott’s reading makes sense but, like Ella Taylor, I never quite got what made Sarah and Brad’s life all that tedious. Both have comfortable lives, but more crucially, I never quite get the sense that Sarah and Brad consider themselves failures as much as they’re simply bored with their lives. This boredom relies almost entirely on the film’s utter disdain for suburbia, for the apparently bland upper-middle class lives in which the mere mention of adultery will send shock waves through the neighborhood. I’m certainly no fan of suburbia, but I found the film’s shorthand use of suburbia to stand in for Sarah and Brad’s tedium to be one floating paper bag away from American Beauty (and that’s not a compliment). Although, to be fair, I don’t think I found the suburban parents to be quite as shrill as Taylor implies, especially given the parental impulse to protect children from dangers real and perceived.

Taylor also reminded me that like Field’s previous film, In the Bedroom, Little Children relies on a relatively absurd plot twist, in this case involving Ronnie’s self-punishment for his own pedophilia. Field does bring out some interesting performances, which almost made the film work for me until the film’s ending, which, as I’ve tried to imply, left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied.

10 Comments »

  1. JBJ Said,

    March 17, 2007 @ 7:34 am

    I thought the tedium/sense of failure was signaled largely by allusions to things that are more fully developed in the book. (Obviously, that may well mean that the movie is less than satisfying . . .)

    For example, in the book, Sarah’s husband’s retreat away from her into this ludicrous pornographic fantasy land is given much more play, and Sarah’s sexual discontent is articulated right from the start.

    Likewise, Brad’s feeling of being railroaded into a career he’s not especially suited for, by a wife who runs roughshod over him, is pretty straightforward.

    I don’t know if they think their lives are *failures*, but they do have the sense that something has gone terribly awry.

    On a separate point, I *do* think that there’s a “Connecticut mom” type, especially in the posh towns, that the movie nails. When we lived in West Hartford, there were three or four who regulated the 2 playgrounds nearest our apartment. A is still pretty good friends with them, but watching the movie took me right back to the first time the boy and I encountered them.

  2. Chuck Said,

    March 17, 2007 @ 10:34 am

    As I was thinking about the film this morning, I found myself wondering about the depiction of the spouses. Brad’s wife (played by Jennifer Connelly) may be a little shrill, but the film seems generally sympathetic towards her. Sarah’s husband disappears almost entirely during the second act, I think because the “ludicrous pornographic fantasy land” didn’t seem to fit the tone of the film.

    I didn’t really read them as “failures,” and that may have been language I picked up from A.O. Scott. But I was frustrated with the lack of background about why their careers had been derailed (especially Sarah’s) or why things might have gone awry.

    In terms of the Connecticut mom, I can see how the film might have nailed that type. Just found it potentially problematic that the film treated that type in what appeared to be such an ungenerous way.

  3. Laura Said,

    March 17, 2007 @ 12:42 pm

    I read the book with a bunch of suburban housewives, who, I’d say, were Connecticut mom wannabes. Their sympathies lay with the housewives and Brad’s wife, not with Sarah or Brad. So that was interesting. In the book, I understand Sarah’s need for escape pretty well. It made sense to me while it did not make sense to the women in my book club (which I’m no longer in :) ). I guess the “immorality” of her infidelity kept them from finding a way to empathize.

    In the book, Brad comes off as feeling very trapped. In the movie, does he join the football team? Because I found that whole scenario quite pathetic, but somehow compelling. He didn’t seem so much emasculated as just misunderstood. His wife was trying to turn him into a lawyer when maybe he should have been a high school football coach.

    I guess I’m going to have to see the movie now. :)

  4. Chuck Said,

    March 17, 2007 @ 1:01 pm

    He does join the football team, which is played to some extent as an attempt to regain lost glory. The film didn’t seem to know quite what to do with his wife. It’s clear that she is trying to turn him into a lawyer, but the film treats her fairly gently (which may not be a bad thing).

    I certainly understand Sarah’s need for escape given the constraints that seem imposed upon her, and I found her to be a sympathetic character. I think I mostly wonder about the use of suburbia as shorthand for the tedium that she and Brad feel. The film is interesting, better than my review suggests, so I’d love to know what others think.

  5. Mel Said,

    March 24, 2007 @ 12:46 am

    what did you think of the narration in the film? we walked out of it in the theatre after a few minutes because GF couldn’t stand how overbearingly ponderous it was. I don’t mind an intrusive or omniscient narrator in fiction, but in a film it seemed contrived for reasons I couldn’t discern. But then again we didn’t give the film much of a chance.

  6. Chuck Said,

    March 24, 2007 @ 7:05 pm

    I found the narration a little annoying, as if it belonged to a slightly different film. It could have worked had the film taken a slightly more satirical tone.

  7. Francois Lachance Said,

    March 27, 2007 @ 3:00 pm

    Apart from plot, is this a film about look and feel? I ask partly because Little Children (plus its trailer) could be read from the perspective of mood manipulation. This angle comes to me curtously of an orthogonal route (reading Anne Galloway’s Purse Lips Square Jaw) where she points to the work of geographer Nigel Thrift. Nigel Thrift’s argument that a series of affective technologies that were previously used in the corporate sphere to work on consumer anxiety, obsession and compulsion are now being moved over into the political sphere. How might this explain some of the tone setting at work in the film?

    On narration and voice over: “Madame Bovary c’est moi” said at some point Gustave Flaubert. worth considering as to who identifies with who.

  8. Chuck Said,

    March 28, 2007 @ 3:41 pm

    It’s just that the tone setting seemed to go in at least two directions at once–the direction of the voiceover (droll, snide) and the direction of the narrative (sympathetic). Of course, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. I do think the central point of identification is with the Kate Winslet character (the Emma Bovary stand in). Interesting that this film review has inspired more comments than usual.

  9. Francois Lachance Said,

    April 2, 2007 @ 1:44 pm

    And from the Chutry Experiment archives (August 2004)
    quote…
    I’m concerned that I will end up sounding like the treacly Daniel Stern voice-over from the TV show, The Wonder Years, rather than being able to offer the meaningful or humorous observations
    …quote

    Voice-over and illusions of identity formation…. ?!!

  10. Chuck Said,

    April 2, 2007 @ 2:00 pm

    Oh, there’s definitely a connection. With “Little Children,” of course, the v/o is ostensibly objective, belonging to a character who never appears in the film (much like Alec Baldwin’s v/o in The Royal Tenenbaums), while in my case, I’m talking about narrating my own experiences, which complicates that notion of “identity formation” to some extent.

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