Todd Field’s adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel, a satirically-laced examination of disaffection in suburbia, is apt to divide viewers in much the same way that Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty” did. There will be those who will dismiss it as stylistically affected and self-indulgent. On the other hand, many will hail it as brilliantly conceived and executed. Put this reviewer in the latter camp. “Little Children”–a title that ironically refers to the adult characters more than their tiny offspring–is beautifully crafted, sharply funny and emotionally piercing, all at once. It’s easily one of the year’s best films.
Based on a novel by Tom Perrotta (who collaborated with Field on the script)–from which it takes the wonderfully arch narration delivered by some omniscient figure with a voice that would do upper-crust TV commercials proud–the film links two narrative threads. One involves an affair between two local marrieds–dissatisfied wife Sarah (Kate Winslet), a literature M.A. whose husband (Gregg Edelman) is secretly addicted to a porn web site, and boyishly handsome stay-at-home dad Brad (Patrick Wilson), whose wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) makes PBS documentaries and who’s half-anxiously, half-uninterestedly preparing for his third try at the bar exam. The two meet in a local park, where both have gone with their young children, her daughter Lucy (Sadie Goldstein) and his son Aaron (Ty Simpkins). The clique of mothers with whom Sarah’s connected–led by stridently judgmental Sheila (Jane Adams)–have taken to calling the mysterious Brad, whom they’ve never dared approach, the Prom King, and under a dare from them Sarah not only approaches him but, as a joke, gets him to kiss her. That leads to the affair, which they cover by effectively using outings with their kids as an excuse for getting together.
The second plot thread concerns Ronald McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), a convicted sex offender just returned to the home of his mother May (Phyllis Somerville) in the neighborhood. His presence has led to an obsessive interest from watchdog Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich), a volatile ex-cop who undertakes a campaign to harass him and warn the locals. A narrative connection with the Sarah-Brad story arises when Brad, obviously trying to hang onto his youth, joins Larry’s touch football team with his cop buddies and is reluctantly dragged into his anti-McGorvey activities. Some viewers may feel that the time devoted to McGorvey–which is substantial–is excessive, despite the fact that Haley’s performance is extremely compelling (as is Somerville’s). But hisstory actually dovetails with the “affair” thread in that Ronald and Larry develop a relationship of interdependency as real as (if more perverse than) the one between Sarah and Brad, and in that both relationships are not only essentially immature (in that they’re irresponsible), but also are based, in one way or another, in abusing–or using for one’s own purposes–the true children.
Taken as a whole, the film revolves, as the title indicates, around the scriptural injunction, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” And as is appropriate to a story that treats its children, of all ages, with a powerful combination of both compassion and ironic detachment, it is equally concerned with observing these “children” as they themselves suffer and make others suffer. The approach is no more naturalistic than the one Todd Haynes employed in another superb study of American suburbia (though of a different time), “Far from Heaven.” The tone is deliberately heightened, with periodic splashes of near-gothic horror, steamy melodrama, spiky satire, and domestic farce. (Wait for the football scenes, commented on by that narrator with the attitude of a smugly certain on-air commentator.) The miracle is that it all comes together wonderfully well, thanks not only to Field’s precise touch but also to Antonio Calvache’s well-judged cinematography, Leo Trombetta’s editing and Thomas Newman’s affecting score. There are occasional slips–the book club session that turns out to be on “Madame Bovary” is likely to strike you as an overly obvious touch–but they’re remarkably few for a piece that demands such delicate handling.
And the cast is, by and large, superb. Winslet expresses the desperation of a trapped existence with skill, and Wilson is entirely convincing as an oddly naive man-child whose yearning to remain a boy is ultimately his undoing. Connelly is frankly underused, as is Edelman, but Haley makes McGorvey both pathetic and frightening, and Somerville is incredibly sad and affecting. And while Emmerich and Adams come on awfully strong, emerging as virtual caricatures, Field has somehow gotten extraordinarily natural turns from young Simpkins and Goldstein, without making them annoyingly cute.
“Little Children” is the sort of picture that some will dismiss as arty and others as artful in the best sense. Even admirers will have to admit that its calculated virtuosity is apparent (as in a scene in which McGorvey invades the crowded neighborhood swimming pool and causes a panic). But all films are calculated; the question is whether the calculation works. And in this case Field’s certainly does. His film is a work of uncommon intelligence, imagination, humor and poignance that toys with standard formulas to stunning effect.