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Little Children

dir: Todd Fields
[img_assist|nid=807|title=Strumpets. The pair of them.|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=172]
Quiet little stories about middle class people in the middle class burbs aren’t exactly rare, so it takes a bit of skill to make such mundane-sounding materials come alive. Little Children does come alive, which surprised even an old curmudgeon like me.

Throw in themes of infidelity, being bored by one’s children, the nastiness of mother’s groups, the hysteria over sex offenders and the joys of vigilantism, and you have a movie that’s about more than what it appears to be about.

Sarah (Kate Winslet) isn’t entirely comfortable with the whole being a mother thing. The daily all-consuming nature of being a mum doesn’t fill up all the empty spaces in her day, and the moment she looks forward to the most is when her husband gets home from work and gives her an hour or two to herself. As the films opens, she, like her daughter Lucy, doesn’t really fit in with the other kids and mothers at a local playground.

The other women, looking and acting like a Desperate Housewives version of Witches of Eastwick, are your average bunch of soccer moms who gear their whole identity around the fact that they are mothers and the self-evident fact (to them) that being a mother means they have the god-given right to be incredibly mean-spirited judgemental bitches.

Their nattering twaddle is interrupted by the arrival of a man they’ve dubbed the Prom King (Patrick Wilson), who seems to be a stay-at-home dad. Whilst the soccer moms giggle and coo from a distance, Sarah craves something which compels her to go over to him, much to the horror of the other mums.

Brad and Sarah embark on some semblance of a friendship played through their kids. They meet daily under the pretext of doing it for the munchkins. Both have their reasons for doing so, both have different aspects of their characters at play which leads inexorably towards a certain outcome.

Sarah’s husband doesn’t have much of a story apart from the fact that we are privy to his increasing obsession with some porn star on the internet, which leads to probably one of the funniest scenes of caught-in-the-act masturbation since Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Brad’s shrew wife (Jennifer Connelly) is the kind of supportive yet emotionally castrating wife that seems to justify the inevitable husband’s infidelity on the grounds that she is too focused on her career as a documentary maker to care about her family. She continually badgers Brad to study for his thrice-previously-failed law bar exam to allow him to practice as a lawyer. He has other plans.

When the soccer moms called him the Prom King, it’s a uniquely appropriate way to encapsulate the dilemmas he faces in life. He wasn’t an actual prom king, but he was the kind of guy who had it all up until he had to join the adult world with the rest of the grown-ups. He is, for all intents and purposes a decent father to his son, and doesn’t seem to bear any resentment towards his wife by having to be the primary caregiver to his son, which most other flicks would have emphasised. His problem, if it is a problem, is that he perpetually dreams of being a teenager again.

Perhaps it’s not just the lack of responsibility and structure that he craves. We see a bunch of scenes where he sits watching teenage skaters doing rail slides and grinds, hungering for a return to when he felt like everything was exciting and shiny.

Speaking of watching children, as the overall story unfolds, at the same time a convicted sex offender has been released from jail and moved back in to their whitebread community. The hysteria has already reached fever pitch even as the film starts, so it doesn’t have too far to go before you expect lynch mobs to be marching down the street with pitchforks and flaming torches akimbo.

Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley) is just as creepy and odd looking as you would expect. The film spends equal amounts of time making him look like a sympathetic character as well as representing how repugnant he is at the same time. It’s a hideously difficult balance to manage, and the film does well to achieve it.

Much of Sarah and Brad’s time is spent at the local pool, so when Ronnie turns up with a mask, snorkel and flippers to “cool off” whilst watching the kids underwater, every parent at the pool goes berserk like he was the shark from Jaws. It’s a pretty funny scene, though off-putting at the same time. We have to contrast the fact that Ronnie’s intentions are hardly pure, yet the overreaction by the other swimmers is hysterical in more ways than one.

Larry, a former cop who befriends Brad almost by force (the always creepy Noah Emmerich), makes it his crusade to drive Ronnie out of their hallowed community. His own life being a shambles means that he has to get progressively amped up on rage in order to avoid thinking about his own catastrophic mistakes which make him almost as much of a pariah. I smell kindred spirits, I do.

Brad and Larry also play on an amateur football team, which allows Brad to live out even more of his glory days fantasies whilst Larry desperately claws at the people around him in order to feel like he still matters.

When Brad and Sarah finally start fucking like crazed weasels, we sense that tragedy cannot be far away. We have come to expect through cinema, literature, personal experience and the Jerry Springer show that cheating on your spouse only ends in rage, chair fights and destroyed families. In this flick, when a character who’s having an affair starts debating the merits of Madam Bovary at a book club and pointing out how wonderful a fate it is for the main character despite the ending, you can’t help but think something awful is going to happen to someone so blind.

Though the tone is fairly light at all times, I couldn’t help but start thinking that doom, doom, DOOM was looming. There’s all these signals and hints that something could go horribly wrong. Such an aspect probably would have unbalanced the film, because, thankfully, it’s not a morality tale. This isn’t about good people doing something naughty and being punished for it by a vengeful god. This is about people who are neither good nor bad, doing stuff for different reasons and because of different strengths and weaknesses of their own characters.

In such a context and construct, such a flick lives and dies with the script and the performances, and I’m glad to say that the script is literate and wonderful, and the performances are spot on (except with Noah Emmerich, who I have nightmares about). There is an often present narrator reading in a very official sounding the inner thoughts and motivations of the characters, and, for this flick, it works. Much of what is revealed could not have come across in any other way, and it adds a layer that would otherwise be missing.

The narration provides one of my favourite moments in the story, where we are told that part of Sarah’s difficulty with her day to day existence is the fact that her child Lucy is this “unknowable person”. As much as she might love her, and be devoted to her well-being, the fact that she spends 24 hours a day with a baby doesn’t push all of the buttons a person needs pushed over the course of their lives. It’s hardly a brave admission, but it is a meaningful one, since the vast majority of “won’t someone PLEASE think of the children” flicks end up acting like a person who doesn’t dote on every blissful poop and dribble of their babies is a horrible monster deserving to be burnt at the stake.

The other moment, which has an accompanying set of narration expanding on the theme, involves a careless statement made by Brad that represents the true depths of his shallowness, and the fact that Sarah and Brad are not on the same page. Or even on the same book, shelf, building or continent.

To me the title seemed like it was a contraction of the famous Bible line about ‘suffer the little children’, but I think it has an easier explanation than that. The adults in this flick are children themselves, trapped

The flick is long, but competently directed and well-paced throughout, and is genuinely enjoyable and very mature rendering of fairly mundane materials in the form of a complex story. I enjoyed it heaps, and recommend it to anyone who is all tuckered out from explosions, pirates, chiselled Spartan warriors, Bruce Willis’s shiny head, animated lunacy and your average predictably empty cinema fare. It’s not a masterpiece or anything life changing by any stretch, but it’s a thought-provoking and meaningful film without any easy answers to the complicated walking, talking problems that humans are.

8 times boys should listen to their mothers out of 10

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“I’ll find you. If you tell anyone, I’ll fucking find you” – ah, Ronnie, you sweet talker you, Little Children.

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