It had me at hello, did the surburban satire Little Children, and kept me for a long time, and then lost me in its final moments. If ever that dictum about an ending making or breaking a film were true, it’s here — I can’t remember the last time my impression of a movie was so dramatically altered by how it wrapped up.
But I don’t want to spoil the particulars of that ending for you, because Little Children is worth a look-see, particularly for Kate Winslet fans. She’s nominated for an Oscar for her performance here, and though I don’t personally think this is one of the very best acting jobs of the year, it is very good. (My “problem” with Winslet? She’s always amazing, but she isn’t any more amazing than she typically is here, while other always-amazing actresses did turn in performances than were even more extraordinary than usual in 2006.) But know that the overall experience is somewhat less than satisfying.
The followup from writer/director Todd Field to his 2001 In the Bedroom, this is something of a mirror image to that film: where his earlier work was an exquisite portrait of marital intimacy, this one is about, in part, where marriage falls apart, about the lack of that intimacy. More pertinently, where the other celebrated family, this one puts family life — and the larger cultural structures in which it exists — under an unfeeling microscope. You can only snicker as Little Children opens with a narrator (Will Lyman: The Siege) giving us the lay of the social land at the neighborhood playground on a pleasant weekday morning: here are the cliquish “popular” moms with their expensive designer strollers and their perfect little kids; here is the outcast, the weirdo, the strange mom who doesn’t dress correctly and secretly doesn’t really like her kid much. The narrator isn’t a character — he’s just, you know, the narrator, like this were a perverse kind of nature documentary. And in a way, it is, looking at suburban mores with an askance eye, peeling away layers of hypocrisy and bullshit to expose the emptiness at its core. If only it could carry the whole thing through to an finish that made more sense within that context…
The weird mom is Sarah Pierce, and I adore Winslet (Flushed Away, The Holiday) in the role — Sarah’s not adorable, but Winslet’s talent in bringing her misfit crankiness to life is. And yet soon she is indulging in that most Peyton Place, suburbanesque of clichés: an affair with the gorgeous suburban dad, a Mr. Mom who frequents the playground and sets all the popular moms to sighing, though they’re not even brave enough to simply talk to him. Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson: Running with Scissors, Hard Candy) is as much a misfit as Sarah, feeling cornered and emasculated by his overachieving wife (Jennifer Connelly: Blood Diamond, Dark Water), but not too much, either — he kinda likes his days doing nothing but hanging around with his small son. And he surely likes his new routine of hanging around the municpal pool or the park with Sarah and her daughter, and having a quick, sweaty boink with her while the kids have their naps.
Contrast Sarah and Brad with the pathetic circumstances of Ronnie J. McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley, also nominated for an Oscar, for best supporting performance, and also not among my best-ofs for the year, though certainly, again, in the second tier of cinematic goodness for 2006). Ronnie is the local child molester, except he isn’t quite as bad as that: Indecent exposure to children? Sure. Actually touching any kids? No. He’s publicly and loudly villified, of course, and perhaps even rightly so, while Sarah and Brad’s illicit affair goes uncommented on, though it’s pretty obvious what they’re up to. And perhaps that’s right, too. But that’s kinda the point: figuring out where your own personal morality lines up with the boxed-in mores on display here. Who’s hurting kids more, someone who watches them from a distance, even if he’s got nasty things on his mind, or people on the road to breaking up two families, actually psychologically damaging two kids?
I don’t know my own answer, and the film doesn’t supply its own, either. But it also loses the thread of the satire, turns to mushy, sentimental drama and characters behaving in the dumbest, most inexplicable ways imaginable. And throws away every point it was trying to make in the process, leaving a sour, disappointed aftertaste and a feeling that you’ve been cheated as much as Sarah and Brad’s spouses have been.