starring Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Gregg Edelman
screenplay by Todd Field & Tom Perrotta
directed by Todd Field
by Walter Chaw Kate Winslet is a joy if no longer a revelation, and in Todd Field's Little Children, she demonstrates the kind of courage that has made her the most essential actress of her generation. Aside from Winslet, Little Children feels like a burlesque of deep-feeling pictures: the lesser of two possible sophomore efforts from the guy who brought us In the Bedroom, which was, in 2001, my since-regretted pick for best of the year. (I can be a sucker for well-played big emotions, I guess.) But Little Children is icy, stentorian, and patrician in its staginess and self-consciousness, and its disdain for its subject matter is front and centre. The picture presents its tale of suburban woe as the world's most condescending fairytale, inserting an omniscient narrator in a way that, along with the upcoming Stranger Than Fiction, makes me wonder what it is about unseen movers that is so seductive in the modern conversation. I also wonder how Field and co-screenwriter Tom Perrotta (adapting his own book) could have rationalized the amount of bile mustered in reconfiguring American Beauty to include a raincoat perv (Jackie Earle Haley, the heart and soul of the film--if also its patsy and mule) and a sweaty adultery punctuated fatally by a winking nod to Madame Bovary.
The suspicion inescapable, however, is that Perrotta, who penned the source novel for one of the better social satires of the '90s, Election, has in fact fashioned a script intended to play like the ultimate snark-fest, complete and sneering in its shiny, polyester skin. When this material finds the hand that feeds in a hyper-real melodramaturgist like Field, the resulting concoction is a weird tension between someone playing it for tears and someone playing it for barbs. Little Children can only really be read as the goat in the satire: bearded, teeth-bared, and fast at ladling abuse upon itself as its audience readies to pounce. Take the nattering sewing cotillion that is the picture's chittering Greek Chorus of Stay-At-Home-Motherhood: they gather at the local playground, micromanage their children's playtime, and swoon like French ladies in waiting when Stay-At-Home Dad, Brad (Patrick Wilson), wheels his tyke in for a turn on the swings. Field sucks the air out of their scenes--where the other performances are alive and complex, theirs are stage-bound and mannered. And their queen, Mary Ann (Mary B. McCann), is so rigid in her small-minded villainy that what could she be but an allegorical every-bitch?
The same fate befalls too-educated Sarah (Winslet). In baggy sweaters and ugly mom-pants and with a daughter she doesn't seem to love in tow, she moons over dimwit loser Brad and her own adolescent dream of disaffected disassociation. She's less a carefully-drawn character than a cautionary tale, just as there was never anyone as doofus-y as Brad (a key point comes when he's transfixed by teens jumping off steps on their skateboards--this film's plastic bag in the wind)--just as there was never any mother (May McGorvey) as Ma Kettle as indecent-exposure artist Ronald's (Haley). The caricatures are so vicious and uni-dimensional that Little Children suddenly if briefly becomes unique in that it actually has the balls to attack the bread and butter of the indie dysfunction genre. It's only a satire upon deep reflection, though, the same way In the Bedroom might be read as the world's sneakiest satire of over-wrought prestige pieces: by being almost the perfect example of that which it seeks ostensibly to overthrow. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and the most devastating form of criticism, it's true--but where Little Children loses itself is in trying to keep one foot on both bases. Meant as profound in some way, it's profound in no way. Originally published: October 18, 2006.