Little Children concerns two likeable people, straight-jacketed by suburban convention, drawn together by an undertow of chaos. Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) is in a holding pattern, having twice failed the bar exam. His tan, athletic good looks are defocused by a sense that his financially successful, knockout of a wife has castrated him. Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) never finished her dissertation, got pregnant, and married a rich narcissist who neglects her sexually; she is now chafing at the duties of motherhood.
At the park, side by side, pushing their kids on the swing set, Brad and Sarah first enter each other’s orbit. All summer, they stake out an innocent public life on adjacent towels on a shady patch of grass at the neighborhood pool. Their eventual tryst isn’t love, or even just lust, but a hunger for possibilities.
What Brad and Sarah risk is excommunication by a gossipy and cruel community that shuns those who trespass against its laws. We see this happen to two others: to Larry (Noah Emmerich), a disgraced former police officer; and especially to Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), who just got out of jail for exposing himself to a minor, and is now the town pariah. Larry and Ronnie become another couple of sorts, a mutual arising of opposites that hints at hidden dynamics.
As in the film American Beauty , we have a gloomy sense that destructive forces have been set in motion. Madame Bovary is invoked. We periodically hear the sound of trains in the distance, a symbol of approaching fate. The director and co-writer of the film, Todd Field, seems to be saying here that to live an authentic life, one must risk not just disapproval, but genuine danger.
For his pitch-perfect first film, In the Bedroom , actor-cum-director Field spent years meticulously constructing a screenplay with Andre Dubus. Field has tried that again here, collaborating closely with Tom Perrotta to adapt Perrotta’s book. But this material is without the rich hues and fathomless emotional calculus of Dubus; so Field has gone for broader strokes with satiric overtones, including using narration and even a split screen. This is rarely very funny. But still, every knick-knack on every shelf, every line of dialogue, and every actor-ly nuance has been thought about – a level of control Field might have learned from Stanley Kubrick, his boss on Eyes Wide Shut .
Despite narration that is presumably supposed to help us out, Brad is a shallow guy, and Ronnie’s a cipher. What at first seems like stiff acting, especially from Wilson, turns out to be called for by the conception: how much can we really know about what’s going on inside other people? Sarah even calls her daughter an "un-knowable little person". But Winslet, an emotional actress, has a style that clashes with this approach. When the narrator tells us what she’s feeling, you can almost feel the actress squirming. "Come on," she seems to say, "let me show you!"
This and other theater, music, and movie reviews can be read, listened to, or podcast by going to WFIU.org. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.