Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 09 October 2006
Source New Line Cinema 35MM Theatrical Print
Features: The 44th New York Film Festival
Any film with the unfortunate sense to describe actress Kate Winslet as “boyish” is already in trouble. In Little Children, Winslet falls victim to the popular Hollywood trend (see also Toni Collette in In Her Shoes) of the recognizably sized woman cast in a role labeled as the average, borderline attractive woman with self esteem issues. There’s no argument that Winslet shares a dress size with many more female viewers than someone as undernourished as Kate Bosworth, but the negativity associated with this is insulting, and disregards the obvious fact that Winslet’s well endowed mammaries in no way resemble a boy’s physique.
This is one of the many irritating aspects of Todd Field’s sophomore effort. Little Children focuses on Sarah and Brad, both stay at home parents, and each the dissatisfied half of a suburban married couple: Sarah’s husband Richard has an overzealous obsession with internet pornography, while Brad’s wife Kathy is entirely disinterested in sex, instead focusing on their son and monthly budget, as she is the sole breadwinner in the household. An affair between Sarah and Brad is set in motion with an unexpected kiss, the opening act of this tedious and conceited drama. Suburban angst has been more than fair game for decades, whether under the deconstructive eye of David Lynch or more recently in television with the success of Desperate Housewives. Little Children takes itself quite seriously, depicting not only upper-class dissatisfaction, but also the reaction of the community to a recently released sex offender who has moved home with his mother.
It’s quite obvious Sarah doesn’t fit in with the playground mothers, even without the addition of the relentless, unnecessary voiceover that assures us of this misfit‘s decision to study the other mothers in an anthropological fashion. Armed with a master’s in English literature, Sarah stocks up a solitary room in her house with books and other reminders of her single youth while spending her days moping or barely acknowledging her young daughter. Considering this as evidence of Sarah’s intelligence, it seems absurd that she hasn’t taken up some kind of part-time career, or at least started blogging her dissatisfaction. Instead Sarah’s self-declared poetical “hunger” forms a desperate emotional need for Brad, whose unremarkable Peter Pan complex prevents him from finishing the bar exam and helping his family out financially.
The lynchpin to this sorry affair, Brad, like his ubiquitous name, does correctly capture a kind of man whose happiness seems to hinge on his own narcissistic ego and his ability to stoke it. Brad blames his despondency on his constantly working wife, who denies him a cell phone and a few magazine subscriptions to save household costs. Feeling unneeded and certainly seeking approval, he commences the affair with Sarah after finding his photo in her poetry anthology placed next to some choice lines describing lust. Perhaps if this male insecurity was deeply unspooled, or if Brad didn’t seem so damn juvenile and self-centered, there would be an emotional dynamic to this marital power struggle; however, the entire affair is not only conventional but pathetically so, as Little Children attempts to pin relevance on a few petty, uninteresting people.
Concerning the sex offender who moves in and stirs up the community, the entire subplot is disturbingly handled. Ronnie never seems more than a two-dimensional tortured figure onto whom other characters, namely Larry, a discharged police officer, can project their own insecurities and fears. There is a terribly executed sequence in which Ronnie visits the local swimming pool, driving children out in droves à la Jaws, only resulting in a cacophony of squeals and near cheering when he is escorted away by police officers, an overbearing attempt to portray the locals as the real “monsters.” Ronnie’s story results in very little other than a shamefully corny dénouement that allows redemption for Larry, and some unsatisfactorily smug social commentary.
There is so little humanity in this film — while on a base level there is certainly a fair amount of hurt and suffering, it’s so cloaked in insincerity one could choke on it. Walking out of the theater, it was extraordinarily tempting to turn and ask other viewers what they found so specifically “powerful” about Little Children, particularly since the following afternoon I heard such heavy sighs after Bamako, a very different film, but still dealing with social issues, on the global level. Little Children is simply another example of superficial social commentary posing as something more, so cloying in its elegant package, and yet so easy to digest for those who would rather have such issues served to them on a silver platter.