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.