Lonely adults, lost children
Todd Field's Little Children, showing at the London Film Festival, opens a window into America's soul.
Take a village in New England, add in adultery, an atmosphere of moral uncertainty and a persecuted outsider, and you’ll get Todd Field’s film adaptation of the Tom Perrotta novel, Little Children.
You might also get The Scarlet Letter or The Crucible, because in spite of the film’s self-conscious reference to Madame Bovary, the story owes far more to its American literary antecedents, all of them set on the country’s moral native ground, all with characters whose struggles open a window on to the nation’s soul.
The film tells the story of Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) and Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson). Both are frustrated stay-at-home parents, existentially adrift. They begin an affair after a playful kiss at the playground, intended to shock a watching trio of disapproving ‘Stepford wives’, jolts them out of their complacency and leads them to question their lives.
The narrator – Will Lyman, the favoured voice of many an American documentary – sets the scene: a beautiful day, an idyllic community. At first the narration seems intended to establish some distance between the audience and the scene playing out in front of them but, in fact, the narrator, with his slightly tongue-in-cheek tone, comes to serve as the only expression of the inner lives of characters who long for intimacy but never really confide in one another.
The theme of disconnection and anxiety amid the trappings of harmony comes into sharp relief with the arrival of Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), a convicted sex offender and paedophile. We see television news interviews with worried neighbours and learn of the Committee of Concerned Parents that has plastered the village with McGorvey’s photograph.
But nothing in Wyndham is quite what it seems and the ‘committee’ proves to be one man, Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich), a retired cop with a troubled past whose obsession with McGorvey is the catalyst for tragic events that touch the lives of all the characters in unexpected ways.
What sets Little Children apart most strikingly from other films about the suburbs and middle-class malaise is the way it treats domestic life. As stay-at-home parents, Sarah and Brad do not count for much, not in their marriages or the world at large. Brad’s wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) brings home the bacon and manages the family’s tight finances, even leaving him a note to ask does he really need his subscriptions to Men’s Health, Sports Illustrated and Mothering Magazine.
Sarah inhabits the house that belonged to and was decorated by her husband Richard’s mother. She has a room of her own populated with the ‘remnants of her former self’ but is strangely out of place in the rest of the house which seems unnaturally neat and certainly not home to a three-year-old child. In fact, the ‘nap time’ trysts between Sarah and Brad don’t take place in the house proper – not even in Sarah’s room – but only in its margins, the unfinished laundry room or the attic. It is as if intimacy and domesticity no longer go hand-in-hand.
Social life in Wyndham isn’t doing very well either. The mothers Sarah sits with at the playground, who later ostracise her for kissing Brad, are hardly what could be considered a group of friends. They are just as quick to condemn one another as anyone else. When one breaks ranks to warn Sarah about McGorvey, she’s visibly nervous and dashes off before Sarah can have a real conversation with her.
Brad becomes involved with Larry Hedges when he is roped into playing quarterback for the night league team Larry and his ex-work mates, the local cops, belong to. Brad finds it exhilarating to be with other men doing something he enjoys, but it all has a slightly weird feel because no one ever comes along to watch the games. Indeed, the only thing in the film that comes close to a display of public enthusiasm is when horrified residents clear the village pool when it is discovered that McGorvey is swimming among them.
It seems the only ray of hope lies in the unconditional love between parents and their children. And there is no better example of this than May McGorvey (Phyllis Somerville), Ronnie’s mother. ‘You did a bad thing, but that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person’, she tells a desperately unhappy Ronnie as she encourages him to place an ad in the personals section of the newspaper. We watch her scrub away the angry graffiti daubed on the front walk and confront Larry when he comes to harass Ronnie at home. Ronnie is incorrigible, but through the prism of May’s love he is also sympathetic. In the end, it is not Brad and Sarah’s love for each other that redeems them, but that most primal love for the little children of the title that shakes them out of their self-absorption and offers up hope for the future.
Todd Field’s Wyndham is at once familiar and deeply creepy. The old salt boxes and mature trees somehow feel stale and claustrophobic. Not everything rings true. Sarah’s husband, Richard whose obsession with a B-list internet porn star is exposed in one of cinema’s most cringe-making moments, seems thinly drawn, and their relationship utterly implausible. The critical playground-mothers with their make-up and pearl earrings seem a million miles away from the average mother in the average American playground, most of whom wear the same shell-shocked expression as Sarah and have not come anywhere near earrings or make up in a very long time. More tellingly, the harsh gaze of judgment is just as likely to come from the mother wearing the sling and toting organic fruit snacks as the mom in the twin set.
But in spite of these details, Little Children manages to capture something of an irony at the heart of American life, namely that the loss of trust and empathy in the social world has also taken a toll on our most intimate relationships. The film’s ending is ambivalent. There is no easy way out for any of the characters, no obvious solutions or easy answers to their personal dilemmas – yet somehow we’re left with the feeling that a better life is possible if only we look beyond the ends of our noses.
Little Children will be shown at the London Film Festival on 25 October.
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