Little Children

WFTB Score: 14/20

The plot: The tranquil lives of a community are disturbed when a sex offender is released from jail to live with his mother. Though a campaign exists to warn parents, bored househusband Brad and frustrated wife and mother Sarah become less interested in looking after their respective children than in pursuing an affair with each other: a liaison that will have profound effects on all their lives.

Although it seemed quite revelatory at the time, it soon became clear that American Beauty was merely the highest profile and best-marketed film for a while to look just under the surface of American domestic bliss and find all sorts of dysfunctionality and unhappiness. With the subsequent popularity of Desperate Housewives you start to wonder whether there’s a single happy family left in the States: Little Children only furthers the case for the prosecution.

Little Children concerns itself with three interconnected stories. The central character in the ‘main’ story is Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earl Haley), a convicted sex offender (he indecently exposed himself to children and has just been released after a two-year jail term) who moves back into a family-filled suburb to live with his fragile mother (Phyllis Somerville). Although numerous restrictions have been slapped on Ronnie, this isn’t enough for the Committee for Concerned Parents, organised (and, as it turns out, solely run) by traumatised ex-cop Larry (Noah Emmerich).

Larry goes out of his way to make sure the neighbourhood are aware of Ronnie’s crimes, though his zeal goes beyond natural concern. Ronnie’s mother, meanwhile, tries to set her son on a path to conventional behaviour, though a date with Jane Adams’ vulnerable depressive doesn’t end well – for her, at least.

Then there’s Brad (Patrick Wilson), a good-looking young father dubbed the ‘Prom King’ by the drooling mothers at the playground. He is a full-time minder for his son Aaron, so the family lives on the stretched earnings of documentary film-making wife and doting mother Katherine (Jennifer Connelly). As Brad is due to sit his Bar exams for a third time, Katherine is confident that their situation will improve; but her husband is in fact skipping evening classes to watch boys skateboarding; and when Larry coerces Brad into playing quarterback for a Police football team, it’s just another welcome distraction.

Finally, Sarah (Kate Winslet), a frustrated housewife and mother to Lucy, finds that she has little in common with the mothers who are so keen on Brad: she is neither as robotically organised as them, nor as backwards when it comes to speaking to the object of their affections. An impromptu kiss scandalises the group, and while it has little bearing on Sarah’s marriage to branding consultant Richard (Gregg Edelman) – he has become obsessed with web-based porn star ‘Slutty Kay’ – Sarah’s friendship with Brad slowly grows, through regular meetings at the local open-air pool, and eventually spills over into a passionate affair.

There’s an enormous amount of quality on show in Little Children, adapted by director Todd Field and Tom Perrotta from Perrotta’s novel. The sets look credible and real – Mrs McGorvey’s house, with its clocks and ghastly child figurines, looks exactly like the sort of environment that might raise a pervert – and by opening with the explanation (via TV news) of McGorvey’s release from jail, a sense of imminent danger hangs over the entire film, heightened when Ronnie appears at the pool, causing a Jaws-like exodus out of the water.

All the performances are excellent, too. Haley cuts a sinister yet pathetic figure as the messed-up paedophile; while Connelly, pouring all her love into her son and the children she interviews in her work, only wakes up to her husband’s infidelity late on. Winslet is customarily convincing as Sarah and together with Wilson effectively raises the question of who the title refers to: as they play their naughty game, are Brad and Sarah merely avoiding the responsibilities of their adult lives? Noah Emmerich is also good as Larry, an unlikeable character but ultimately compelling as it emerges that his persecution of Ronnie is an extension of his own guilt for a past tragedy.

The praise cannot go unqualified, however. For a start, I have mixed feelings about the narration, which frequently breaks in to explain how people are feeling: whilst it fits in with the sense of the film as coming from a novel, I can’t help feeling that the same emotions could have been – indeed, were – registered equally well by the actors themselves. Perhaps Perrotta enjoys his own prose, but this device makes Little Children a peculiarly unsubtle adaptation.

Also unsubtle is the inclusion of a book club to which Sarah is invited (as a ‘little sister’) to discuss and defend the notoriously adulterous Madame Bovary. Finally, I found the denouement something of an anti-climax. That the characters – Brad particularly – made some illogical decisions was understandable, given their fickle natures; but Larry’s late conversion from nemesis to helper (finding Ronnie in a shocking condition) seemed like a contrivance, and I wanted to know what became of Brad and Sarah rather than being left to assume that they all lived unhappily ever after.

Little Children is an interesting addition to the list of domestic dramas, like American Beauty and The Ice Storm, that dissect perfect-looking relationships and find them to be far from healthy. It bravely and sensitively handles a subject that few films dare to approach (Todd Solonz’s uncomfortable-to-watch Happiness springs to mind as another example); I just wish that the long running time (over two hours) had been leavened with a little of the subtlety and humour that graced another film based on Perrotta’s work, Election.

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