Strange as it might seem, this week’s From the Archive selection is by request. Out of the blue, I was asked by a friend, “Have you seen In the Bedroom and Little Children?” I answered in the affirmative, then sheepishly noted that, on the latter film anyway, I didn’t feel equipped to have a knowledgable discussion. Hence, my agreement to retrieve this review from the old blog my friend doesn’t know about to be my stand-in for the discussion. I remembered having strong negative feelings toward the film without being able to say with precision what they were. Looking back at this review, I was reminded of some of the film’s strengths that I unfairly downplayed in my memory. Mostly, I’m impressed my friend found his way to Tood Field in his ongoing film self-education.
In recent years, the producers of the Academy Awards have been trying to tighten up the telecast with several tactics, and there’s been much talk about how to speed through the awards in what are typically referred to as the more “technical” categories like visual effects and sound editing. It was so dispiriting that one recent winner felt compelled to honorably defend his work as a sound engineer by noting that “every decision is an artistic decision.” A scene midway through the new film Little Children perfectly supports this assertion. The setting is a suburban public swimming pool inundated with rambunctious children and their marginally attentive parents. An unwelcome visitor comes to the pool; initially unnoticed, his presence soon sets off a mild panic with parents yelling and kids screaming. The whole sequence is a minor masterwork of sound editing, as the aural perspective switches between the clarity of the sound above the water and the muffled squeaks below the surface of the pool. It builds to a piercing crescendo of shouted energy, crackles down to near silence and then finds its way back to the freshly created sounds of carefree play. There is sharp, focused storytelling here, heightened by the work of men and women who toils as craftspeople in the shadow of stars and artists.
Little Children is filled with sequences rich with well considered details and uncommonly strong execution. The filmmaking is always marked with great care and the attentiveness of a director who has made every choice for a specific reason. Not every choice works, to be certain, but the shortcomings don’t come from thoughtlessness or a lack of personal vision. I’ve no doubt the film on screen is exactly the film that Todd Field wants on screen.
Field’s feature debut was the bracing In the Bedroom. In a way, he’s in familiar territory here, examining the ways in which connections splinter under the stress of human frailty and temptation. What’s markedly different is the tone. In the Bedroom was solemn and grounded in the quiet business of daily life; some of the most memorable moments are those that are the least remarkable, such as Tom Wilkinson buying candy at his own front door or Sissy Spacek taking pleasure in the accomplishment of her music students. Little Children has its telling details and darker moments, too, but the prevailing approach is closer to the soft satire of American Beauty. As with the Beauty, this teeth-bared race through the suburbs leaves the film susceptible to the broken momentum caused by encounters with unanticipated cul-de-sacs.
Adapted with the author from Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name, Todd Field’s script employs a stentorian narrator to offer some play-by-play. This rarely serves to provide information that’s supplemental to what’s being depicted dramatically, or even enhances our understanding of the characters’ motivations or reactions. Instead, it enhances the falsehood of what we’re seeing, ensures that the comedic elements have equal footing with the household heartache of pained marriages, undervalued offspring and problematic sexual urges. Then again, maybe the narration is just there to set up the sly NFL Films take-off that appears in the latter portion of the film, our narrator hunkering down into full-on John Facenda mode to recite purple poetry over a rec league football game.
Otherwise, the narration, and other overtly self-conscious approaches to the storytelling, too often distract from the strong work being done by the actors. Kate Winslet enhances the material as a dissatisfied housewife, nicely balancing the broader giddiness and clumsy emotional outreaching of her character with a determined concentration on the hard realities of her unhappiness. And Jackie Earle Haley caps his comeback year by handling the film’s most explosive scenes with aplomb.
The film follows multiple narrative threads with mixed results. Each story is has its intriguing moments or individual scenes that spark, but for much of the film Field doesn’t always handle the chore of developing them especially well. Rather than everything moving forward in a meaningful way, it sometimes feels like Field is simply marking time or, worse, trying unsuccessfully to mix the provocative with the jokey. That noted, it’s surprisingly satisfying when everything telescopes together at the end. The actual surface particulars night seem a little forced or needlessly coincidental, but all the film’s themes–regained youth, lost children, the desperate desire to be wanted, the appreciation of held accomplishments versus the intriguing promise of the unknown–settle into a final statement that feels right.