Little Children: Todd Field’s Follow-Up to In the Bedroom, Starring Kate Winslet

In his sophomore effort, Little Children, Todd Field fulfills the promise he showed in his 2001 debut, “In the Bedroom,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Fest and went on to win major critics awards and five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Sissy Spacek.

Though “Little Children” is not perfect, due to some structural and tonal, and Jennifer Connelly’s bad performance, which stands out because the rest of the ensemble is terrific. Nonetheless, as of September, it’s the most interesting and provocative American movie of the year, and I doubt if we will see many pictures that are as ambitious as Field’s film before the end of the season.

That said, the challenging movie likely will divide critics and audiences, and New Line needs to come up with a brilliant marketing campaign to put this one over, and separate it from other good movies of the past decade about suburban malaise (See Film Comment).

As a take on American suburbia, “Little Children” offers a darkly humorous view of a group of characters whose paths crisscross in unexpected ways, both comic and tragic. In scope and ambition, the film recalls the large ensemble pieces of Robert Altman (“Short Cuts”) and his protege, Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia”).

Since “Little Children” is set in contempo suburbia (refreshingly New England and not Los Angeles) and deals with marriage and adultery, inevitable comparisons will be made with Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty,” which swept the 1999 Oscars, including Best Picture, and more specifically with Todd Solondz’s “Happiness,” due to some similarities in characters, prominent among which is a sex offender in both features, albeit one that serves different purpose in the text.

A deeper look at “Little Children” suggests that it’s a different kind of movie than those two, with an original different narrative strategy, visual style, and characters. The movie is at once more ambitious and more complex than “American Beauty,” but it’s also more problematic, perhaps because of its complex structure and ambitious goals.

Give it a chance. In moments, “Little Children” is a tough movie to sit through, due to its emotional intensity and uneasy shifts in tone, but you will find yourself provoked and upset, if not downright haunted, by specific images and dialogue lines long after the experience is over, which can’t be said about most American movies these days.

As co-written by Field and Tom Perrotta, based on the best-selling novel by Perrotta (who also wrote “Election,” made into a great picture by Alexander Payne), “Little Children” centers on twelve fully-developed characters whose lives intersect in surprising, even dangerous ways, when they meet in various places of their small, intimate community: the playgrounds, the town pool, the supermarket, and of course, the private homes.

Like most good movies, the text of “Little Children” is dense and the tone rich enough to be interpreted in different ways by different viewers. On one level, the movie could be taken as a modern-day fable about the turbulent emotional landscape beneath the surface of a seemingly conventional suburban neighborhood, one in which the denizens struggle with juggling marriage and children, desire and infidelity, personal and public lives, self-fulfillment versus community-orientation.

On another level, the movie could be seen as an anatomy of consciousness, intertwining characters that embark on personal and collective journeys, at the end of which they reach emotionally startling revelations about themselves, their significant others, and their community at large.

The yarn’s protagonist is Todd (Patrick Wilson), a handsome house-husband, affectionately known to the stay-at-home moms of the neighborhood as The Prom King. Hes every womans sexual fantasyall the women in the neighborhood cast lusting glances at him–except for his wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly). The family’s breadwinner, Kathy is a documentarian (there’s a wonderful scene in which she interviews a boy whose father had died in Iraq). A bit of a shrill, she puts pressure on Todd to pursue his legal career, since he has failed not once but twice the bar examinations.

The film’s female protagonist, sort of Todd’s counter figure, is the young, beautiful, and alert Sarah (Kate Winslet). Once a passionate feminist, aspiring to become a PhD in literature (who never wrote her dissertation), Sarah is stuck in a listless, sexless, run-of-the-mill marriage to Richard.

Sarah is the only mom in the neighborhood who has the courage to introduce herself to the “Prom King. Sparks fly from their very first meeting, in which Sarah asks for Todd’s phone number in order to impress her friends and win a five dollar betbut also to prove to herself that she can just do it.

The movie is wonderful in showing how an initial embrace and a fake kiss ricochet with far-reaching consequences for the couple and its surroundings. Gradually, amid talks at the neighborhood pool and walks in the park with their kids, Todd and Sarah delve into a heated affair. Todd sees a light in Sarah that her husband hasnt noticed for years, and Sarah fills the emotional void that Kathy has created in her pursuit of more stable, upscale life, defined by conspicuous consumption and materialistic possessions.

Sarahs wayward attentions dont seem to bother her husband Richard, who’s far too obsessed with an online stripper, Slutty Kay, to even notice. Richard becomes so enamored of this Internet exhibitionist that he lets himself get caught by Sarah in an uncompromising position that would embarrass any man, let alone a married one. (Compared to the book, in the film, Richard’s persona is both changed and diminished, perhaps due to the need for dramatic compression).

The specific reactions to Todd and Sarahs infidelity cannot be described here, but suffice is to say that it’s a steamy erotic affair with full nudity (of both partners) and daring sexual positions, at least as far as bourgeois sexuality is concerned. (The gifted Winslet has never looked so beautiful or seductive)

In a poignant reading group session, the movie suggests an inventive parallel between the tragic heroine of Flaubert’s seminal novel “Madame Bovary” and Sarah’s adultery and ultimate fate. Granted expressive close-ups, Winslet’s Sarah wonders what choices she has, and how much has the status of “deviant” women-mothers changed as far as societal expectations are concerned.

Switching from the personal to the collective domain, what rallies the community’s disparate characters together is the appearance of Ronnie (brilliantly played by Jackie Earle Halley), a convicted sex offender, who returns to the neighborhood after a stint in prison. While his mother May is still convinced that her baby boy could never do such terrible things, the rest of the community thinks otherwise. As Ronnie’s attempts to lead a normal life begin to falter, the neighborhood is quick to organize against him.

Local cop Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich), a macho, self-righteous bully, is obsessed with getting Ronnie McGorvey out of the neighborhood, and to that extent, has formed a group of concerned parents. Having joined the football team, Todd comes under the influence of Hedges and joins him on some of his harassment trips to McGorveys house, where he needs to contend with Larry’s tough mom May.

As written and acted, Hedges is an unsympathetic role that needs to make a huge transformation to emerge at the end, like the other characters, more humane or at least less bigoted. There’s too much of Hedges in the film, at the expense of other characters that could have been developed (as noted, Sarah’s husband Richard, who is prominent in the book, barely exists in the film), and that Emmerich is over-the-top make things worse. Along with Jennifer Connelly, Emmerich gives a weak, hysterical performance, which stands out in a uniformly good ensemble.

The scenes between May and Ronnie, and between Ronnie and the other town members are intense and disturbing, though not exploitational or gratuitous. Touching on a timely issue, how to handle sex offenders considering the statistics of repeated crime rates, and what should be the community role in helping them, Field and Perotta succeed in humanizing the character and his predicament, particularly in a great scene toward the end, in which Ronnie comes face-to-face with Sarah and her daughter.

It also happens that two of Ronnie’s scenes are among the best in the movie. Field shows a masterly touch in staging a pool sequence, in which Ronnie violates his parole and up, irritating the other residents who, one by one, leave the area. It’s one of the most mesemerizing scenes I’ve seen of how presumably rational individuals turn into an undifferentiated mass, driven by panic and hysteria. Field’s use of visuals, sounds (and silence) serve, which forces the viewers to take a stance, serve this scene particulary well.

In another great scene, Ronnie goes on a date (with Jane Adams), under the initiative (or rather pressure) of his mother that goes expectedly very very wrong. Cineastes may see similarities between Adams’ role here and in “Happiness,” in both of which she is brilliant, nailing her role in one or two scenes.

With all my enthusiasm for Field’s film, it’s impossible to ignore the flaws. First and foremost is the character of Kathy, which, as written and as played (poorly) by Jennifer Connelly, makes little sense. Another actress might have done better with such underwritten part, which feels chopped. Crucial scenes (from the book) might have ended on the editing room floor, thus reducing the central narrative from a triangle to a duet, despite prominent billing of Connelly.

Another important scene, in which the two couples, Kathy and Todd and Sarah and Richard gather for dinner, is also a miss, due to Connelly’s inept interpretation. The spouses are unaware of the illicit affairthat is, until Sarah spills the beans with one tiny remark. Whereas Sarah’s husband is oblivious, Kathy gets the pointit’s a great moment of realization, with dark humor that Connelly fails to convey, even when she goes under the table to check out her rival.

Watching this scene brings to mind another movie about adultery, “Heartburn,” in which Meryl Streep, while having her hair done in a beauty parlor, suddenly realizes that her husband (Jack Nicholson) is having an affair with a socialite she knows well. A close-up of Streep and her expressive face does marvels for her, and for the scene, whereas with Connelly, the poignancy is nearly lost.

Connelly might have been misdirected, for her scenes with her mother, a bright woman who’s suspicious of Todd, lack the humor and relevance they must have had on paper; Kathy’s suspicious mother (whose husband had also cheated on her) proposes to accompany Todd to his whereabouts, which she does, except for one, crucial time, a sports game.

The film’s other major flaw is the voice-over narration, which feels arbitrary. Unlike “American Beauty,” in which Kevin Spacey’s protagonist narrated the story subjectively, consistently, and ironically, here the commentary is sporadic and comes from the outside, from a third-person, thus creating unnecessary distance between the characters and the viewers. (This device reaffirms my reading of the saga as a fable).

Like “American Beauty,” “Little Children” displays dark humor, though Field is not particularly adept at shifting the story’s mood from the serio to the comic, and from the funny to the horrific between scenes, and often within the same scene. The movie’s last reel is problematic and rushed, perhaps due to the need to bring all the story strands and divergent persona together in more or less satisfying manner.

Despite these problems, Field has made a picture thast lingers in memory long after the viewing. Benefiting from consistently sharp writing, meticulous direction of at least half-a-dozen masterful sequences, “Little Children” is a work that flaunts in equal measure wry humor and irony, pathos and melodrama, above all, brutally candid emotional truth that cuts to the bone.

Unlike the theatrically stylized “American Beauty,” “Little Children” is both more original and authentic in its attention to detail. That film, as directed by Sam Mendes and written by Alan Ball, borrowing from Billy Wilder, was more of a pastiche of cliches of 1950s suburban works updated and applied to the late 1980s. Moreoevr, though as critical as “American Beauty,” “Little Children” doesn’t pander to or judge any of its characters, not even the sex offender.