Little Children (2006)

Dir. Todd Field

Starring: Kate Winslet (Sarah), Jennifer Connolly (Kathy), Patrick Wilson (Brad), Jackie Earle-Haley (Ronnie), Noah Emerich (Larry) etc. 140 minutes

5/10

Should You See This Film?

This film disappointed me, but I can’t say with any confidence what others will think of the film. For me there were some aspects of the film that just didn’t work for me, but I could see it working for other people. Sorry, this is not very helpful.

**

Other films that are similar in some way: Bridges of Madison County, American Beauty, Ice Storm, we don’t live here anymore.

***(Spoilers of In the Bedroom too)

I really liked In the Bedroom, Todd Field’s debut film, so I was excited about seeing this second effort. Unfortunately, the film disappointed me. There are two main reasons for this: 1.) The theme of the film is well-worn, and I don’t think Field adds anything interesting or creates an exceptional film; 2.) Field shifts tones throughout the film and, imo, this approach doesn’t work.

Whether one agrees with this or not is highly subjective, so many of you may love this film. Had I felt like Field added a fresh insight or succeeded in the various tones of the film, I may have really liked this film. Based on his two films, I would say Field’s approach is risky and will sometimes result in failed or less than successful films. But that’s OK.

What wasn’t OK was the subject matter and storyline of the film–namely suburbia and suburbanites who feel constricted, trapped or disappointed by their lives in this world. Field focuses on four characters to explore this theme.

First there are the characters of Sarah (Kate Winslet) and Brad (Patrick Wilson). These are the two characters that feel trapped and disatisfied with their lives. Sarah seems to once have had (or maybe still does) aspirations to finish her Ph.D., but her child seems to make this impossible; add to that an unhappy marriage and Sarah is looking for something else.

Brad is in a similar situation. He’s a stay-at-home father who is supposed to be studying for the bar exam. He’s already failed it at least once, and he’s not sure if he wants to take it, but he has no choice because of pressure from his wife, played by Jennifer Connolly. I don’t have a high regard for her acting, but she does a solid job in this film. In addition to this pressure, Brad feels resentful towards his wife because she’s the breadwinner, but more for admonishing remarks about his spending and other comments like that. Brad feels dead and longs for feeling alive.

Like in other stories of this sort, Brad and Sarah meet and have an affair. The affair brings excitement in their life and at one point–a euphoric moment when Brad scores the winning touchdown for a local community league he’s playing–they decide to run away. If this is sounding predictable and dull, it kinda is. If the acting wasn’t so solid or I didn’t respect Field so much, I might have been bored. But I kept waiting for something.

That something was pretty disappointing especially with regard to Sarah and Brad. Basically, before Sarah and Brad are able to run away, something happens to each of them that stops them, snaps them out of the illusion and makes them realize what’s really important. For Sarah–she realizes that her daughter is really important for her and that she loves her. For Brad, he realizes that he’s looking for the feeling of being alive, and Sarah is not the only source of that feeling. These characters are striving to break out of disappointment and doldrums, but they avoid tragic consequence and thus get a second chance.

The conversation about Madame Bovary pretty much spells this out. Like Bovary, they want to control their lives and do something to make their lives better. Bovary (I haven’t read it in a long time) ends her life in tragedy, but, as Sarah comments, she is to be admired for trying. Sarah and Brad are like Bovary, but they avoid the tragic consequences. Field communicates the message of the In the Bedroom in a similar way, but this underscoring comes at the beginning of the film (whereas the Bovary discussion is in the middle) and referred to in a subtle way when the father rubs his finger after coming home from the evil deed. I don’t know why this storyline disappointed me, except to say that it felt stale. Others may disagree.

The other two important characters were Larry (Noah Emerich) and Ronnie (Jackie Earle-Haley). They’re trapped, too. They’re both pariahs (Larry not as much as Larry, but he’s still somewhat of an outcast.). They’re also both trapped: Larry by guilt and Ronnie by both guilt and impulses that seem beyond his control. Like Sarah and Brada (and Bovary) they try to break away from this.

The conclusion of these characters might have appealed to me, but for some reason didn’t. Larry has a shot at redeeming himself by first approaching Ronnie with contrition and then by trying to save his life. Ronnie’s self-castration makes him more sympathetic, and the act may have saved Sarah because it distracts her and allows her daughter to wander off. For some reason these events and themes just didn’t win me over. Perhaps, if Larry’s acting was better I would have liked it more. I don’t think that’s the main problem though.

One thing that was sort of interesting is Field’s development of Ronnie’s character. There’s a similarity with Thomas Mapother’s character, Richard Stroudt, the wife-abuser, in In the Bedroom. Field uses both characters to manipulate the audience by first riling up the audience to feel disgust or hatred towards these characters, only to pull the rug from under them later. Usually filmmakers do this so that audiences can feel good about the revenge that will be inflicted upon them later, but Field uses this to indict the audience. We’re so willing and eager to hate characters like Richard  and Ronnie that we rarely see aspects of them that would warrant our compassion and sympathy. Field seems to want us to realize that, and perhaps make us feel bad about hating these characters in the first place.

But that’s still not enough to have made this a great or even very good film. The themes, storyline and characters just feel flat and tired to me. Also, Field’s attempt at moving between various tones throughout the film–from silly comedy, more subtle comedy and serious dramatic moments–just didn’t work for me. The film felt awkward because of it. The use of narration–the guy who narrates Frontline episodes–just didn’t work for me. Not only was it not very funny, but I found it way too didactic at times. What I loved about In the Bedroom was Field’s restraint and trust in the audience; he showed more than explained the film. At times the narration did the latter, and it just didn’t work for me. Still, on some level, I appreciate the attempt at this. It was a risky move, difficult to pull off.

1 Response to “Little Children (2006)”


  1. Reid

    Now playing at the Restaurant Theaters.

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