Monday, May 07, 2007

Little Children (Movie Review)

Movie Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Actors: Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley
  • Directors: Todd Field
  • Format: Closed-captioned, Color, DVD-Video
  • Rating R
  • Studio: New Line Home Video
  • DVD Release Date: May 1, 2007
  • Run Time: 137 minutes

In spite of its three Academy Award nominations, I had not heard of this movie, came across it merely by browsing the shelves at my neighborhood video store. Since I've been seeing quite a few Kate Winslet movies of late, most of which have ranged from interesting to impressive, I rented the movie on the strength of her name. Good decision. Little Children at this point ranks, in my mind, as Winslet's best performance to date.

The various intertwining plots of this movie, narrated with wonderful lines from a Tom Perotta novel, would ordinarily have disturbed me if not inclined me to leave it on the shelf. And it was disturbing. Again and again, it made me cringe, and wince, and fidget, and roll my eyes, and sigh with exasperation. But keep watching. These are the "little children" (immature adults without control over their adolescent whims and whines) of a wealthier suburbia, including adulterous couples, cooling and troubled marriages, neglected but well adorned children, bored wives, fantasy-ridden husbands, porn-addicted executives, and the neighborhood pedophile living with Mommy, as he calls her, because who else would have him?

Opening on a gated playground scene with mothers seated on a bench, only Winslet's character, Sarah Pierce, on a separate bench, watching their children at play, a young father (Patrick Wilson) with stroller enters the grounds - and the heads of the wives turn en masse. Prom King, they call him, and the fantasies of the bored wives quickly surround the pleasant young father as he plays with his little son at a distance. Nothing more desirable than a man playing with his child... only Sarah can hardly bear the cheap chatter of the women, and more to break it up than out of interest in the Prom King, she approaches him, gets his phone number on a dare, goes in for a hug to scandalize, and then, caught up in the tease of the horrified other mothers, lands a sensual kiss on the stranger.

And onward and upward and hotter from there we go.

The trigger for Sarah to unleash an affair, however, is not the kiss (although he, the recipient, can't stop thinking about it, even as he contemplates the cold superiority of his businesswoman wife who treats him more like a child than a husband - an interesting reversal of roles), but the discovery of her husband at home heaving and panting in front of a computer screen filled with a virtual stripping woman. Sarah is filled with disgust, her respect for her husband disintegrates, and when she searches and finds a wastebasket beneath the computer filled with stiffened tissues, she realizes she has encountered an ongoing addiction. Rather than confront her husband, she represses her disgust and unhappiness, as too many women do in similar situations, and purchases instead a scarlet red bathing suit in order to feel desirable again and heads to the neighborhood pool where the Prom King hangs out every summer afternoon. What pretends to be a new friendship soon is a full-blown affair.

An interesting moment between the two takes place when Sarah asks her new lover if his wife is pretty. Oh yes, drop dead gorgeous, he tosses off his shrugging appraisal, but "beauty is highly overrated," he says, oblivious to the insult he has just paid his new lover, and as the narrator inserts - it takes a great kind of arrogance in one's own beauty to be so disparaging of another. But however tossed off, his comment reveals a deeper truth: the two are extraordinarily compatible and similar in their family torments and the beating each has sustained on their marital ego.

Throughout this development of an affair, other sideline stories and characters evolve. There is the story of a pedophile (Jackie Earle Haley) and his mother (Phyllis Somerville), his deep attachment and dependence on her, the only human being who still cares about him, even as his behavior continues, sending the neighborhood into gyrations of horror and fear. There is the story of the bully cop (Noah Emmerich), just this side of being a criminal himself, who deteriotes into a vigilante chasing the pedophile, causing far more harm than good. And there are many rich and memorable scenes, which include a gathering of elderly neighborhood women with a few younger ones for spice, discussing the novel, Gustave Flaubert's riotous "Madame Bovary." There is the neighborhood's men's football team, and the portrayal of their often clumsy male bonding and destructive competition. Another winning scene has the cheated-upon wife, played by Jennifer Connelly, who mostly blends into background for other characters, observing a conversation between her husband and neighbor Sarah. As perhaps only women can, she understands from the most casual exchange between the two that there is far more intimacy between them than a man and woman friend should share. There is no raucous fireworks revelation of the affair, simply a silent observation, and a woman's instinct. She knows. Nor does she tell him that she knows. Again, like most women, she holds her knowledge inside, to quietly observe and await his hitting his own wall.

For all its moments of discomfort, as so many of our hidden life stories and opened closet doors may cause, this entire story is exquisitely developed, with top level acting, nuanced dialogue, and meaning that unfolds upon even deeper meaning when the layers of masks humanity wears come off. The story concludes with a surprising twist that is also highly satisfying, yet no more "pretty" than life usually is. Not even in a wealthy corner of suburbia.

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