Little Children (United States, 2006)
It's not necessary to look at the color of the leaves to determine the season of the year when movies of this power come along. Little Children, the second feature from director Todd Field (In the Bedroom), is the rarest of movies - a literary multi-character drama. From the erudition of the voiceover narrative to the three dimensionality of the characters, Field's film is the closest it's possible to get to a book without reading one. The story is presented in an unhurried fashion with all the characters and situations being allowed to develop and expand in a natural fashion.
Although this is an ensemble piece, there are two anchoring characters. They are Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) and Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet), neglected spouses who find happiness in each other's company as they chaperone their children's playdays. It takes a while but they eventually give in to the inevitable and become lovers. They dream of being with one another, but that seems more like a fantasy than a hope grounded in reality. Other characters orbiting like satellites around the main pair include Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), Brad's controlling wife; Richard (Gregg Edelman), Sarah's porn-obsessed husband; Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), a convicted pedophile; and Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich), an ex-cop turned vigilante.
There's enough material here to fuel a series of lurid melodramas, but Field (who co-wrote the screenplay with Tom Perrotta, upon whose book it is based) keeps things low-key and under control. The scope of the project never gets away from him. The voiceover (unlike most voiceovers) is helpful, since it emphasizes the story's literary roots. Delivered in a smooth baritone (that of Will Lyman, who can be heard on PBS' Frontline), it offers observations and editorials on the action, occasionally with more than a hint of sardonic wit.
The performances, especially those by Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson (the tortured pedophile in Hard Candy), Noah Emmerich, and Jackie Earle Haley, are tremendous. Winslet and Wilson face the challenge of portraying regular, intelligent people who are trapped by the normalcy of their lives. Emmerich and Haley, on the other hand, must play individuals with monstrous personality defects, and they do so without making their characters seem either unduly sympathetic or reprehensible. This is especially difficult for Haley, considering the nature of Ronnie's crime (he exposed himself to an underage girl), but the actor succeeds.
It might seem to some that Little Children meanders too much or could have been better focused. While I agree that any of the characters would have made an excellent choice for a feature film, Field's goal here is to present a slice of the community - the soccer moms, the bored housewives, the disempowered husbands. The main story deals with Sarah and Brad, but the other characters are given existences of their own, which is rare in motion pictures, and Little Children is richer for it. With In the Bedroom, Field demonstrated his mastery of difficult dramatic material and his ability to direct actors. His sophomore feature, which avoids the dreaded "slump," reinforces those characteristics and gives us reason to believe Field is a director whose next project should be met with anticipation.
Little Children (United States, 2006)
Cast: Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Gregg Edelman, Jackie Earle Haley, Noah Emmerich
Screenplay: Todd Field & Tom Perrotta, based on the novel by Tom Perrotta
Cinematography: Antonio Calvache
Music: Thomas Newman
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
U.S. Release Date: 2006-10-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity, Violence)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1