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Child’s Play

October 22, 2006

What would happen if you took a typical suburban relationship drama and added third-person narration by the voice of NFL Films?

Drama would turn to satire, the same way Jane Austen’s authoritative voice turned slight tales of bourgeois romance into brilliantly observed studies of 19th century social mores.

Todd Field, the director of In The Bedroom, is going for a similar vibe in his strange new movie, Little Children. It is ostensibly about an extramarital affair between dissatisfied suburbanites Sarah (Kate Winslet) and Brad (Patrick Wilson), but it’s really about the myriad of ways our culture’s exaltation of children can lead to infantile–or at best, adolescent–behavior in adults.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that the narrator, Will Lyman, has never chronicled a Raiders season on grainy filmstock. But he does provide a pitch-perfect impersonation of John Facenda–the “frozen tundra” guy–during one of Brad’s adult league football games.

The wonderfully realistic thing about Sarah and Brad’s affair is that they don’t share a profound chemistry. For Brad, the affair is an escape from a neutered homelife where his type-A wife (Jennifer Connelly) treats him no different from their three-year-old child. For Sarah, it’s an opportunity to find passion again after discovering her executive husband’s (Gregg Edelman) obsession with Internet porn. These are two people running away from seemingly similar spouses for very different reasons: Brad is sick of being treated like a child, while Sarah is sick of her husband acting like one. The irony is that the deeper their relationship progresses, the more adolescent their pursuits become.

Their affair reaches an inspired level of absurdity at the football game, which is simultaneously hilarious and pathetic. When a beaming Brad scores the winning touchdown, he looks to the stands to see the game’s sole spectator: Sarah, clapping and screaming like a smitten cheerleader. It’s a moment of delicious irony, but the movie doesn’t let us enjoy the comic detachment.

After making out on the field, Sarah tells Brad, “This isn’t real” and lectures him about the delusional nature of their relationship. I’m not sure whether this buzz-killing switch from humor to pathos is a good or a bad thing. You could argue that it’s a reality check for the audience, a reminder of the personal dysfunction that produces our laughter. Or the movie may just be insulting our intelligence by telling us what we already know.

This is a problem throughout Little Children, which has numerous scenes that attempt to abruptly switch from satire to drama. Even the narrator seems unsure of his role; half-hour-long stretches go by without a word from Lyman. Field’s intent, I think, is for the film to work as both satire and drama, but those genres are nearly mutually exclusive entities.

Where drama wants to draw us into empathetic identification with the characters, satire wants us to critically observe them. Once a narrative asks us to detach ourselves from the characters, as Little Children does, it becomes very difficult for that same narrative to ask us to empathize with them. Only the rarest of masters–Austen again comes to mind–can pull off the trick of turning a satirical object into a moving heroine.

But if there’s any actress on the planet good and smart enough to transcend the objectification of satire, it’s Kate Winslet. She’s never less than completely convincing in her role as an intellectually stifled housewife, although oddly, she is probably miscast. She’s simply too beautiful for the part. When Winslet’s character, Sarah, meets Wilson’s character, Brad, in a playground, he doesn’t find her physically attractive–“He thought her eyebrows needed trimming,” booms the narrator. Whether you like Winslet or not, you can’t deny that she’s at least pretty, if not epically stunning.

On the opposite end of the physical spectrum is Jackie Earle Haley–memorable as a pimple-faced misfit in movies like The Bad News Bears and Breaking Away–who plays a paroled sex offender who recently moved into the neighborhood. Ronnie McGorvey is a fascinating invention, a weasely, depraved man who is powerfully attracted to children and calls his 80-something mother “Mommy.” But he is also completely passive; he is painfully aware of his perversion and never sexually harmed a child, having gone to jail for indecent exposure at a playground. But the non-violent nature of his crime is lost on most parents. His presence inspires the inner bully in Brad’s teammate Larry (played by Noah Emmerich, who once again shows his talent for playing domesticated characters with hidden reserves of rage).

All the adult characters in the movie are similarly guilty of immaturity in the name of child-rearing. Brad’s wife baby-talks to Brad and doesn’t allow him to buy a cellphone, but the movie suggests her adult lifestyle relies on periodic infusions of cash from her mother–who never misses a chance to refer to both Brad and her grandchild as “the boys.” Even Ronnie’s otherwise saintly mother is complicit in the stunting of her son’s growth, writing in his personal ad that “he always eats the food I put in front of him.”

Much like its spiritual cousin American Beauty, the movie climaxes in an unsatisfying and violent conclusion. The decisions Sarah and Brad come to about their relationship make sense, but they are simply too abrupt. For a couple who have spent so much of the movie denying the real-world implications of their affair, they come to their senses awfully quickly.

While the movie never quite figures out how to handle the tension between satire and drama, you have to respect the thematic consistency of Field and novelist Tom Perrotta’s screenplay. The mere mention of Ronnie among Sarah’s fellow housewives at the park leads to hysterical calls for his castration. They are so obsessed with the care of the brood that they have elevated their children’s perceived needs over adult conceptions of justice. It’s a familiar suburban lament–“What about the children?” But in Little Children, the children are more than well-cared for. A more necessary question, the movie suggests, would be “What about the adults?”

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