As a senior in college, I was fortunate enough to be forced into reading Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel “Lolita.” While the idea of reading a pedophilic love story seemed off-putting to me, I simply couldn’t wait to hear the class discussion on the book. I like seeing people uncomfortable. After some stumbling out of the gate, I grew to love Nabokov’s book and the more disgusting and awkward it got, the more I awaited the response from the gum poppin’ girls and the muscle headed dudes in class. They didn’t disappoint.
As class got ready to start and “Lolita” was the topic for the day, there were creeped out looks and an undercurrent of naughtiness or even embarrassment. Some in the class managed to put their cell phones down long enough to suggest running the teacher off campus. As the angry, confused and grossed out comments began to fly my teacher sat back and looked at the class. “Didn’t any of you find the book…kind of…hilarious?” Only a pen rolling off the desk broke the silence that followed. Yet he was right! “Lolita,” for as sad, disturbing, sexually offensive and difficult as it is to read, the book is also a fairly black comedy that only a person able to set aside their disgust at a pedophile can really get. After watching Todd Field’s excellent “Little Children,” I had the same sort of feeling. While the film is downright strange, there’s still unforgettable moments of humor, sadness and joy. And there’s also plenty of uncomfortable moments as well.
While much has been made of one of the storylines in “Little Children” that indeed focuses on a pedophile, the film is far, far from about him alone. Rather, it’s a film about the lives of American thirty-somethings as viewed through a brutally honest microscope. Feelings the characters have in the film resonate soundly in real time as we relate to thoughts, actions and feelings that go against the norms of what we’ve been taught to think is right and wrong. Is it wrong to feel jealous of your wife’s newfound love in the form of your child? Does marriage automatically mean human emotions must be chucked away in favor or preserving the sanctity of one’s vows? These are just a few questions raised in “Little Children” and not all of the questions have simple answers.
Sarah Pierce (Winslet) is a thoughtful woman who struggles against her dreary existence by remaining as aloof as possible from the neighborhood wives. Life gets a little jump-start when attractive stay at home dad Brad (Wilson) starts frequenting the local park, sending all the married moms into a fit that threatens their sexually repressed lives. All except Sarah who strikes up what at first seems to be an unlikely friendship with Brad. However we soon realize that these are two immensely unhappy people who seem to have it all but what they really want is to go back in time, or at least find the time to do what they yearn to do with their lives. And then there’s the neighborhood pedophile.
Jackie Earle Haley, where have you been!?! Many will remember Haley as older hooligan Kelly from the original “Bad News Bears.” The guy seemed to be in every film from my youth, but he’d dropped out of site around 1980. Well, he’s back and praise the movie Gods for that. Here he plays Ronnie McGorvey, a fairly unapologetic sex offender who has been released from prison and who returns home to live with his mother May (Somerville). As Sarah and Brad start to get closer, we’re also given little breaks in their relationship to peek in on Ronnie and his mom. While the guy is downright creepy he’s also incredibly pitiful and it’s not all that difficult to feel bad for a man who needs professional help but has no way of getting it. It’s his scenes that are easily the most memorable (and damn it, some are funny too!) yet director Field takes these strange plot twists and handles them so well, you really aren’t sure whether you should be laughing, wincing or heading towards the exits. “Little Children” under Field’s steady hand reminded me of a less over-zealous Todd Solondz movie with much more heart. While some of the scenes in retrospect are as shocking as some of Solondz’s scenes, they’re done with such a nice touch, you almost don’t really realize how audacious they really are.
As is what seems to be the theme in most films these days, all the lives of the characters in “Little Children” intersect in weird ways. Yet the difference here is, Field looks closely at all the little things as well. The moments between the cracks, stolen glances, characters actions that don’t represent what they really mean, unpopular feelings. Much as he did in 2001’s “In the Bedroom” Field lets his characters act accordingly, even if it might make you wonder why they’re doing what they do.
While the screenplay for “Little Chilldren” is basically perfect, it’s the acting that really drives the film home. Winslet is once again terrific as frumpy, repressed Sarah and Wilson has added another notch to his awesome performance belt as the pent up Brad. Yet it’s Haley and Somerville as his mother who damn near steal the show. I hope this film brings Haley newfound success as he proves he’s still got the chops.
“Little Children” is like a less forgettable “American Beauty” mixed with a much wryer take on Kubrick’s “Lolita.” Kubrick got the humor that’s inherent in “Lolita” and Field truly gets the humor that Tom Perrotta (who also wrote the wickedly funny “Election”) writes in both his novel and screenplay. In a movie theater full of freaked out geriatrics, I found myself chuckling aloud many times. Is that wrong? Maybe, if you’re too uptight to react honestly to an honest movie. “Little Children” is outstanding and I think it will be one of those films that people don’t really recognize it’s greatness until a few years down the road.