Little Children (2006)
Written by Todd Field & Tom Perrotta
Directed by Todd Field
Tom Perrotta has enjoyed quite a bit of success in having his novels adapted to film & television. Election, directed by Alexander Payne, was his first work turned into a movie and remains a great picture about the dangers of ambition. Even more successful was the television adaptation of The Leftovers by Damon Lindeloff, arguably the best series of the 2010s. Inbetween these two lies Little Children, a very literary film helmed by Todd Field. This is a dense movie that doesn’t stick to the text with fidelity, instead creating its own narrative spin on the same themes and characters.
Sarah (Kate Winslet) is a stay at home mother living in a suburb outside of Boston, raising her 3-year-old daughter while her husband stays late at work and indulges in fantasies over an internet porn star. During her mornings at a nearby park trying not to roll her eyes over the inane conversations of the other more conservative mothers, she meets Brad (Patrick Wilson). Brad is a stay at home dad raising his son while his wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), a documentary filmmaker. Kathy finds Brad to be aimless and is pushing him to retake the bar exam to get his license to practice law. Brad and Sarah end up becoming closer over the summer and eventually indulging in an intense sexual affair under the guise of playdates between their kids.
Meanwhile, the town is plastered with posters warning the public about Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), a sex offender who was released from prison and is now living with his mother in the community. The film also follows Ronnie’s subplot as his mother, knowing she is getting on in years, wants him to find a good woman so that he will be taken care of in the future. Ronnie doesn’t deny his pedophiliac urges but expresses shame & disgust with himself. One of Brad’s friends, Larry, a retired cop is obsessed with terrorizing Ronnie to the point his mania disguises some deeper issues.
There’s a sense of immaturity that comes across from the major players in this story that can be offputting at first but makes sense once you start to understand the role of that behavior in the story Field is trying to tell. Brad and Sarah exist in a persistent state of regret about the choices they made when they were younger. Sarah has a Master’s in literature and put off a teaching career to get married and have a child. She seems utterly uninterested in being a mother, uncomfortable when interacting with her daughter, and eager to pawn her off on someone else so she can let her mind drift.
Brad seems to love his son but resent that his child has taken his wife’s affections. When he tells her he’s going to study for the bar at the library, he instead sits on a bench and watches teenage skateboarders attempt tricks all night. Eventually, he runs into Larry, who convinces him to join a policeman’s football league due to Brad’s past a collegiate quarterback, another element of his lost youth. Brad is invigorated by participating in the game, especially when Sarah is cheering for him from the stands like a high school sweetheart. The relationship between the two is never fueled by mutual respect or a deep connection. The sex is good, and they can feel like teenagers sneaking around, which provides them with the thrill their sad lives do not.
Every character, even Ronnie, is likable in presentation, but as we get to know them and explore deeper, we find some hideous flaws. Their actions are even worse, particularly the cruel way Brad sneaks around behind his wife’s back. We don’t get much from Sarah’s side as her husband is so absent most of the time anyway. There’s a sense of latent fear about Ronnie’s presence in the community with resident tossing off cookie-cutter concerns and spouting edgy things like “he should be castrated.” But through Brad and Sarah’s tryst and the way they ignore their children, we see that the people in this well-manicured suburb aren’t really all that concerned about their kids’ well beings. They have to perform being worried because that’s what you do when you are a parent; instead, they would rather return to an age when they could be immature and cast off responsibility.
There is a natural inclination to cast off the ending as somewhat pat, we all learned a lesson and are moving on. But I read it as much darker than that. Ronnie’s arc is dark but hints at a better future. It’s Brad and Sarah’s story that is the bleakest. Brad finally participates in the skateboarders’ fun only to injure himself and have to be transported to the hospital. He was supposed to be running away with Sarah, abandoning his family, but instead drops her to goof off and act like he’s a kid again. Sarah has a near breakdown when there’s a close brush with Ronnie, and her daughter goes missing for a few minutes. Her ending has her back where she started, staying at home with her child again, her husband is still absent. She appears to have learned something valuable from her relationship with Brad, but her life circumstances are still as miserable as before.
Little Children is more Kubrickian than Field’s previous film, In the Bedroom due to its omniscient narration and tragically ironic character arcs. Field seems to agree that humanity always believes itself to have the perfect plan, flawless in design, only to have Fate bring the whole thing crashing down over our heads. The arrogance of thinking we can create such a perfect plan hints at our lack of mature thought and leads to the meaning of that title, Little Children.