Sarah (Kate Winslet) is a stay-at-home mother whose life is already feeling rut-like and unfulfilling, something that is exacerbated when she catches her husband Richard (Greg Edelman) masturbating in his home office with an unfamiliar pair of women’s underwear tied to his face. Part of Sarah’s daily routine involves going to the park with her three year old daughter Lucy, where Sarah sits slightly apart from the other mothers, due to their constant judgement at how much better they are at caring for their children than Sarah. They all idolise a man named Brad (Patrick Wilson), their male equivalent who brings his young son Aaron to the same park. On a bet, Sarah introduces herself to Brad, and the two soon find the company of the other fulfils something missing in their own lives. Meanwhile, convicted sex offender Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), who was arrested for exposing himself to children, has been released from prison and moved back in with his mother, May (Phyllis Somerville). Many members of the community are uncomfortable having Ronnie living in such close proximity, especially former policeman Larry (Noah Emmerich), who makes ruining Ronnie’s life his own personal obsession.
Well, I made it, this is the last Kate Winslet film (that’s been released so far) for me to review. I’ll keep the quest going with her new releases, such as the upcoming Collateral Beauty, and if I’m ever able to track down a copy of the never-officially-released Plunge: The Movie then I’ll post a review of that too, but for the time being this brings my first major List challenge to a close. It only took five years. You can expect a post in the near future discussing her work in general, perhaps even ranking all of her films, but for now let’s get into Little Children. Oh, on that note, Little Children is perhaps the worst film title I’ve come across for discussing films in public. Phrases like “I love Little Children!”, “I watched Little Children again this morning!” and “Everyone should go out and pick up Little Children for their private viewing pleasure” take on horrific meanings by just replacing a couple of capital letters and switching the text from italic.
Little Children is all about growing up, how that should change people, and how it really doesn’t. Despite all being at least in their thirties, all of the adults here behave like schoolkids. There’s the giggling clique of women ogling Brad, who they literally nickname the Prom King, all too shy and nervous to even go talk to him. There’s the bully, Larry, picking on the weird outsider kid, Ronnie, for being different in a way that scares him. There’s Brad himself, putting off his law exam studies in favour of playing touch football and hanging out at the skate park, living vicariously through the teenagers there. By the film’s climax, most of the adults have come to realise they should at least try to act their age and accept their situation rather than pushing for unattainable or selfish dreams.
The performances are all excellent, and pick of the bunch is Jackie Earle Haley as Ronnie, who manages to make a convicted sex offender a compassionate character, despite doing some utterly horrific things, most of which play out with a dark comedy thanks to his performance and Todd Field’s direction. For example, much of the film takes place around a public swimming pool, where Sarah and Brad meet up and their children go swimming. Ronnie has been banned from all such public, child-filled places, yet one swelteringly hot day, the pool packed with playing children, Ronnie casually walks in wearing flippers and a snorkel, and goes for a swim. There’s a look of barely contained joy on his face mixed with the apprehension that any second now he’ll be noticed and ejected from the premises, and somehow – and I’ve no idea how – it ends up being comedic. Similarly when Ronnie’s mother May encourages her son to begin dating again, his first blind date (with Jane Adams, serial endurer of horrific romantic partners in film) ends in the worst, creepiest but also most hilarious manner possible. Haley justifiable received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars that year, and was arguably more deserving than the subsequent winner, Alan Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine, although Eddie Murphy’s performance in Dreamgirls would have given Haley a run for his money too.
The other truly great performance in a film full of them is one that is only experienced audibly, that of Will Lyman, the narrator, who predominantly provides insight into the minds of Sarah and Brad. His rich, mellifluous voice takes on a condescending tone in these moments, like a tired parent describing the immature antics of a youth, and it’s a real joy to listen to Lyman narrate some of these thoughts.
At times it’s difficult working out who to root for, because in the end no-one comes away morally clean. As the trysts between Sarah and Brad develop into a relationship, Sarah shows no remorse whereas Brad is clearly guilty, yet continues to see her anyway. His career-driven wife (Jennifer Connelly) emasculates him at every turn, perhaps unintentionally, and is cold and distant, making it difficult to feel sorry for her. Larry’s best intentions at protecting the community are an over-the-top persistence to atone for past actions, and whilst it’s difficult not to at least feel sorry for Ronnie (who knows his behaviour is wrong and deeply wishes he were different), it’s impossible to look beyond his desires and misdeeds. Todd Field, who I know better as one of the storm-chasers in Twister, has crafted a gripping drama full of interesting characters, excellent performances and wry humour. I can see some elements of the subject matter not being for everyone – if I had children myself I might find some of the elements of Ronnie’s story less entertaining – but it all works very well for me.
Choose Film 9/10
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