The suburbs and upper middle class always lend themselves to satires. Master film-maker Luis Bunuel ridiculed the middle and upper classes in a trenchant manner, whereas legendary directors like Jean Renoir, Jacques Tati poked the modern bourgeoisie, lightheartedly. All these satires stem from the contrast between the cultivated image and the reality. Any upper-middle-class person trying to manufacture an markedly civilized life and perfectly safe existence comes under the scanner of satirists. Seen in that light, Todd Field's "Little Children" (2006) is not a pure satire. At the same time, it is a hugely absorbing social drama that is, by turns, agonizing and sardonic.
Todd field made his feature-film debut with "In the Bedroom" (2001), which presented the vigilantism, focused on a family's response to an unpunished murderer. In "Little Children" he took the embarking journey of two characters on their road to infidelity. Based on Tom Perrota's 2001 novel, Todd has balanced the satirical tone and his own bleaker sensibility. The movie unfolds with an erudite voice-over narrative, which in an unhurried fashion introduces all the characters and situations.
Sarah (Kate Winslet) is one of the bored sub-urban wives, but she tells herself that she's "an investigator studying the behavior of bored suburban women" (like an anthropologist). She treats her child like an annoying pet and regards her husband as an embarrassment. Her husband, Richard (Gregg Edelman) is highly successful but is obsessed with porn. Brad (Patrick Wilson) is a extremely handsome, stay-at-home dad. He is studying for his bar exam (for the third time), so his knockout wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), a documentary film-maker, is the bread-winner.
Ronnie's (Jackie Earle Haley) arrival into the community triggers outrage among parents. He is a convicted child molester. He lives with his doting mother, May McGorvey (Phyllis Somerville). Larry (Noah Emmerich) is an obnoxious ex-cop and a friend of Brad. He denounces the pedophile and is hell-bent on chasing his away from their community. Brad and Sarah, the neglected spouses, meet at a playground. They eventually give into the inevitable and become intimate lovers during the day when their kids are napping. Larry's pursuit of Ronnie intensifies as Brad and Sarah's affair heats up. They all converge at a point that will have most viewers cringing.
Director Field, like Alexander Payne ("Sideways", "The Descendants") demonstrates a mastery over his difficult dramatic material. The voice-over (unlike other voice-overs) employed here is helpful, since it accentuates the literary roots of the story. All the characters exude enough materials to make lot of melodramas, but everything is under control and low-key, thanks to Field's direction. Perrotta (wrote the novel) and Field wrote the script, which observes the inner struggles of each character with a hint of sardonic wit. Based upon the story setting, there isn't one likable character. But, the movie's reverse code script rigs our sympathies, making us root for all these reprehensible persons. Winslet's character flouts community standards like "Madame Bovary". There is a reference to that classic novel. During a book-readers club meeting, Sarah harangues a woman, who calls Bovary is nothing more than a "slut."
We would never approve Ronnie's behavior but the writers make us feel compassion for this outcast. Movies, often give into the stereotypes. The characters are often black and white, but Field and Perrota's script he succeeds in adding some layers to the term ‘pervert.’ Although we empathize with Ronnie's plight, we never sympathize with him. He is a but not the only one in the community: Larry takes a bullhorn to Ronnie's house and terrorizes his mother; Mary Ann, a regimented, frosty home-maker, constantly denounces Ronnie and creates a outrage. Ronnie has committed a reproachful crime but all these high-minded citizens are committing less insidious crimes like prejudice, civic hysteria and self-deception. One of the touching aspects of the script is the scenes involving Ronnie and his mother, May. There is comic irony and tension, as May advises Ronnie not to mention his sexual problems at a date.
Director Todd Field, an actor himself, draws out extraordinary and subtler performances from his cast. It's hard to imagine anyone other than Kate Winslet in the role of Sarah as she distinctly portrays the internal struggles her character undergoes before allowing herself to feel that ecstasy of love. Patrick Wilson faces the challenge of depicting an intelligent overgrown kid who is trapped by the normalcy. He grapples the challenge with an edgy undercurrent performance. Jennifer Connelly gives out a fine performance, even though she is banished from the script for longer stretches. The master performer in this movie is Jack Earle Haley. The lucidity of Haley's acting in the climax might bring out tears. You may forget that he is acting as he brings out the loneliness and the ugliness of the criminal mind.
The narration might seem meandering and the ending hysterical, but Field's main goal here is to present a slice of the community -- from bored housewives to sex offenders. The inconsistencies can be overseen as there are lots of thought-provoking questions. "Little Children" is a highly nuanced, engaging drama, which brings out the frustration and anger in a tranquil suburban neighborhood.
Little Children -- IMDb
Rated R for strong sexuality and nudity, language and some disturbing content