The scene in which a financial consultant (played by Greg Edelman) masturbates to Internet porn while masking his face with a pair of panties proves that “Little Children” is a satire willing to deliver hard blows. Todd Field, whose 2002 directorial debut with “In the Bedroom” was a big hit among Academy voters, aims his guns at suburbia in his latest film, but it falls just short of a knockout.
Like “Bedroom,” “Little Children” is not meant to produce a casual viewing experience. The idea of friends gathering ’round the TV on a movie night to watch it seems oddly perverse. The material — infidelity, disillusionment and yes, pedophilia — is not just heavy, but utterly depressing.
Thankfully, in order to downplay the seriousness, “Little Children” employs an omniscient, third-person voice-over to highlight the ironical follies in each character’s behavior. Producing comic effects ranging from sardonic to downright farcical, this narrator’s erudite prose was clearly copied straight from the novel of the same title, by co-screenwriter and “Election” novelist Tom Perrotta. “Little Children” diverges completely from the sparsely furnished “Bedroom,” in which silence spoke more lines than all the actors combined.
Sarah Pierce (played by the unsinkable Kate Winslet), is a bored housewife living with a boring husband (see above-mentioned consultant) in a house made of boards. In order to escape from the suffocating walls of said house, Sarah takes her baby doll — oops, I mean daughter — Lucy (more-adorable-than-Dakota-ever-was Sadie Goldstein) to the park to swing, slide and, because absent-minded mommy forgets to pack her a snack, starve.
There, Sarah meets and shares an impromptu kiss with hunky, khaki-clad daddy Brad Adamson (the well-sculpted Patrick Wilson), whom the horny, gossipy neighborhood mothers nickname “the Prom King.” But Brad is far from royalty. He’s actually a stay-at-home schmuck who graduated from law school but can’t seem to pass the bar exam, perhaps because he spends his study time lamenting over his lost youth. His PBS-documentarian wife Kathy (a disappointingly underused Jennifer Connelly) brings home the bacon while he cares for their son Aaron (also adorable Ty Simpkins).
This all may sound like little more than a big-screen version of “Desperate Housewives” — some plot-points, like a nosey mother-in-law invading the territory when Brad’s wife gets suspicious, seem all but plagiarized — but what saves “Little Children” from that kind of kitsch is the disturbing sub-plot involving Ronald James McGorvey (an eerily believable Jackie Earle Haley). Upon being released back into the neighborhood after serving time for indecency with a child, McGorvey suffers constant harassment by the town’s bullying, fear-ridden parents.
But to say that “Little Children” sheds a sympathetic light on McGorvey’s misunderstood character is to mistakenly assume that any character in the film is a real person. They are not. Rather, they are like ants in an ant farm. Given a job by the director — to be unrealistically simple and selfish — each character is observed as if under glass. Because they inhabit a satire, the characters’ flaws are magnified and disproportionate, which empowers, even alienates, the audience, rather than evokes empathy.
To leave with the impression that “Little Children” is simply “too much” or “over the top,” though, is to ignore the tenderness (albeit subtle) of certain moments. For example, at one point it is revealed that though Sarah lusts hungrily for Brad, part of her wishes for their relationship to remain innocent and simple, their physical contact to be limited to a “melancholy handshake” at the end of every day. The irony that the unfaithful Sarah hungers for a sexless love affair, even though she later does consent to one more on the adult side, is admittedly touching.
The biggest flaw of the film is that it doesn’t know where to stop. The audience will early on see the film’s big idea and the origin of the title: That adults act like, and in some ways are nothing more than, little children. With mixed results, the film does not stop with that idea, but continues to explore the questions that arise. If adults begin to act like children, is it because they want to or have to? And what happens to the real children? The film dives overboard from there, dragging much of the pathos down with it, in favor of didacticism.
The so-called lessons to be learned from a satire like “Little Children” are not at all new. Suburbs get beat up every Sunday night on ABC and have seen their ugly reflection in (not exactly better) films like “American Beauty” (1999) and “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” (2004).
But “Little Children,” though its subject is mostly darkness, does shed some rays of light that shouldn’t go unnoticed or underappreciated. Fans of Flaubert ought not to miss the scene in which Sarah (who until she attends a book club meeting hides the fact that she holds multiple degrees in English literature) shares her insightful reading of “Madame Bovary.”
Still, the most compelling truth of Field’s long-awaited peek-a-boo is that his best work is still “In the Bedroom.” In contrast to that film, “Little Children” is noisy, erratically-behaved and desperately in need of a spanking.