Sunday, September 16, 2007

Review: Little Children

It's not neccessary, but it helps to have watched the film.

Little Children - lucy,sarah,aaron,bradGaping cracks in the midst of perfect suburbia has become one of the most popular themes in both film and literature over the last decade. The title of a recent film, Disturbia, captures this sentiment perfectly. These are the fault lines that emerge when the cultivated appearance of the perfect middle-class life: perfect homes, perfect children, perfect jobs, perfect cars – meet the reality of imperfect human beings, like the rough spots and warts which break out all over smooth porcelain skin . When the stress of these two opposing tectonic plates dragging past each other is too great, the rocks rupture like a coiled spring.

This dark vision of suburbia has become rather clichéd, but Little Children can take pride of place for being one of the best films yet to explore this profoundly modern disaffection. Sarah (Kate Winslet), an English Lit masters graduate in a former life, is now a fulltime stay-at-home mum who feels trapped in a lonely marriage. Her husband (Gregg Edelman) is completely absorbed in his job, and who himself finds fulfilment in looking at porn. Brad (Patrick Wilson) is a househusband, who, having failed his bar exams, feels shame and aimless, while his more successful Type-A personality wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) ends up as the pants-wearer in the house. Each morning, Sarah takes her child, Lucy to the park, patiently enduring the catty gossip of the three other mothers that regularly meet there. She ends up meeting Brad (the object of fantasy of the women), and in one impulsive moment, having been challenged to obtain his phone number, goes further than she needs to and end up sharing a kiss. The seeds for the ensuing adulterous affair are planted.

There is another subplot which revolves around a friend of Brad, Larry (Noah Emmerich), a retired cop who’s made a few mistakes of his own. He has chosen to adopt a vigilante role against a recently released paedophile, Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), who now lives with his mother (Phyllis Sommerville). In fact, the whole neighbourhood is wary of Ronnie, captured perfectly in one scene where mass hysteria ensues (not entirely without justification) as soon as he enters the community swimming pool teeming with children.

Kate Winslet is truly a top-class actress; I don’t think I’ve ever seen her give a bad performance. What marks her out is her ability to completely disappear into her character. Throughout the whole film, whenever I watched Sarah on screen, that was all I saw, I never once thought to myself: “That’s Kate Winslet doing [insert action here]”. This is in contrast to, for example, Keira Knightley (who is a talented actress in her own right). Whenever I watch the latter, I think, yep, that’s Keira on screen, not, for example, Elizabeth Bennet. The whole cast is excellent, though I think Haley as Ronnie also deserves particular mention. I also wished Connelly had more screen time as I wanted to get to know her character better, but I suspect they didn’t want to make the film excessively long.

This is a courageous film that neither flinches from seeing the ugliness of sin nor descending into a morass of “we can do whatever we want” morality. Although the story is told primarily from the perspectives of the two main leads, Sarah and Brad, and sympathetically enough that there are occasions when you want to root for them, the director Todd Field has resorted to an old-fashioned device, the voiceover of an omniscient narrator, to lend us some much needed distance. Thus, lest we be completely taken by them, we are instead asked to question whether their motivations, their justifications, their actions, are always right. Pragmatically, it provides insight into the interiority of the characters, and also keeps the narrative woven tightly enough. Scenes move along quickly when they have to. That the film is just over 2 hours long and yet never flags is a testament to its perfectly judged pacing.

The film demonstrates how we are all captives to our desires, what the Bible will call our sinfulness. This is captured early on by Sarah’s husband when he sees no reasons not to give in to his wanton wants. For Sarah, her persistent refusal to cast herself in any role other than victim means that for a long time, she is unable to come to terms with her own brokenness. In one scene where she ends up discussing Madame Bovary, whose heroine is involved in affair after affair where she ends up tragically used by various men, her own perspective has become warped enough that she now identifies with the heroine where once she was repelled by her. Similarly, Brad does not want to take responsibility for his failures in work or to work at his marriage, which, at this stage, is nowhere near the terminal stage. Larry, more obviously, needs to atone for his past mistakes, and does so by choosing to obsess over Ronnie’s sin. In doing so, he appears to project his own mistakes onto Ronnie.

But before we rush to judge, the film at every turn reminds that we are all hypocrites, ready to condemn the easy target without looking at our own hearts. All the characters here have secrets. Look not just at Sarah, but watch the gossipy mothers too. The gap between fantasy and reality becomes all too apparent. Sarah accepts this trade-off for a while, but eventually the charade becomes too painful, and she has to make a choice one way or the other.

We are also asked to recognise that the big questions of life are big for a reason. What is the meaning of life, of my life? Where does true satisfaction lie? How do we deal with the obstacles that life brings? How we answer these questions make a huge difference to the way we live and our understanding of the story we live in. Another interesting question implicitly asked by the film is that of gender roles. Where do men and women fit in today’s world without shortchanging one or the other? It’s certainly something I need to think through more, especially as a tentative complementarian.

One person who comes out of this well is Ronnie’s mother. She showers nothing but unconditional love on her son, wanting the very best for him, willing to overlook his past transgressions. Here, I think, there is a misstep, because she does so almost too lightly, saying to Ronnie: “You’ve done a bad thing, but I know you’re not a bad person.” This, admittedly, is the perspective of 99% of the movies out there. Also, the way the narrative subsequently plays out also allows this to be assumption to be questioned. Ronnie, encouraged to go on a blind date, reverts to type. But it is her love that ultimately drives Ronnie to change – in fact, I think in light of Ronnie’s actions at the end of the film, the word repent will not be out of place at all. It is Ronnie’s recognition that he is, in fact, a truly bad person that sets the ball rolling in the right direction. Also, Ronnie’s mother plays out in stark contrast to the rest of the mothers in the film, who all either excessively idolise the role of the parent (as the many mothers do), or fail to acknowledge the value of this role, as Sarah and by implication Kathy, do. Moreover, all of them seem to see their children as mere accessories. (This is perhaps unfair to both Sarah and Brad, who, however imperfectly, do love their children dearly.)

Watching the final 15 minutes of the film, I was wondering if it was all going to end in tragedy. It certainly seemed that way, and uncomfortable as that was, it was all too feasible. But at the last moment, the director pulls back, and allows hope to seep back into the picture. People recognise the destructive consequences of their actions. And I’m glad for that. No, it’s nowhere near happily ever after. But it hints at the possibilities of the existence of a U-Turn, while never losing sight of the many challenges that lie ahead, and the responsibilities that each character in turn has to shoulder.

Is there anything wrong with the film? There is some nudity involved, and it probably did not need to be as graphic as it was. From a storyline viewpoint, I felt like I didn’t get to know the spouses well enough, but I understand that it might have made the film too bloated. Sarah's relationship with her husband never quite feels tangible, and I don't really know what her best friend, Joan, was there for.

Little Children could refer to a few things. It obviously refers to the many children who populate this film, the ones whom everyone is striving to shelter from the big bad world out there. It also refers to the adults, who often behave exactly like little children: spoilt and self-centered. But there is another possibility. To be like a little child is to learn to be dependent, to recognise our profound need for help. To be like a little child is also to enjoy the love a parent would shower on us. There is no mention of Jesus or God or anything remotely "religious" in the film, yet this is a tale congruent with Christian presuppositions. And maybe Jesus is there after all. Here is the tagline of the film: 'Let the little children come unto me'.


With many thanks to Tony Watkins for helping to focus my reflections. [Link is a little spoilerish, but it’s the type of film where knowing the spoilers don’t matter.]

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