One day at the park, bored suburban mom Sarah (Kate Winslet, Finding Neverland) meets bored suburban father Brad (Patrick Wilson, Hard Candy). Brad is the object of drool for the other moms, and they've bet Sarah she can't get his phone number. This new pair takes it one step further, sharing a spontaneous kiss by the swing set. Intended to freak out the catty housewives, they end up freaking themselves out. Neither can get the kiss out of their minds, and they maneuver to meet in the same places when they take their children out for the afternoon. Both are the stay-at-home caregivers, and both have put their dreams on hold while their spouses follow their careers. Sarah has a masters in literature but never finished her doctoral thesis; Brad completed law school, but he keeps flunking the bar exam. Two lonely, frustrated souls have found each other, and soon, when they put their kids down for a nap, the parents start hitting the mattress, as well. Only, the adults aren't sleeping.
This is the main story of Little Children, Todd Field's long-awaited follow-up to 2001's indie hit In the Bedroom. Though I found it overrated, that film was praised for its quiet reserve, for portraying normal people who have their lives disrupted by violence and the lengths they will go to in an attempt to restore order. Adapted from a short story by Andre Dubus, Field made a smart movie that maintained a literary feel without pushing its connection to the prose. For Little Children, Field worked with writer Tom Perrotta (the author of the book Alexander Payne's Election was based on) to adapt Perrotta's novel, and perhaps the involvement of the original writer is why Little Children struggles so hard to achieve what Field was perceived as accomplishing so effortlessly in In the Bedroom. Little Children feels like a movie that was adapted from a novel and doesn't want to let us forget it.
Actually, Little Children reminded me of another literary adaptation about infidelity, John Curran's We Don't Live Here Anymore (coincidentally based on stories by Andre Dubus). In that film, Curran and screenwriter Larry Gross wove a tale of four married, aging academics who get tangled up in each other. They keep the intelligence of the fictional quartet intact, allowing them to speak and act like educated people who have discovered real life is a lot different than the classroom. Mark Ruffalo narrates, letting the viewer inside the mind of his character. Sarah and Brad in Little Children have much the same problem: their educational aspirations have not translated into the working world, and now they find themselves stuck in passionless marriages. Their only chance of rekindling that fire is with each other. This time, however, the narration is spoken by an unknown, authorial voice. Most of what he tells us is unnecessary, largely explaining the motivation of the characters onscreen, and it creates a disassociative, voyeuristic sensation.
Note I said "sensation" and not "sensational." The narration is overwritten, removing the audience's ability to interpret for themselves. When put together with Field's excessively earnest direction, the two create an air of false importance. Take for instance the scenes where Brad plays on a night-time football team. Softly lit and shot in slow motion, these games are part of Brad's crisis, his attempt to recapture a youth where he understood what he wanted. The way Field shoots it is like something straight out of a Disney picture about the triumph of a small town high school team, complete with our invisible narrator calling a play-by-play. Yeah, we get that these guys are pathetic, we don't have to be hit over the head with the irony.
Kate Winslet almost single-handedly saves Little Children. She understands where Sarah is coming from, and her passionate interpretation of Madame Bovary is more stirring as an explanation of what she is going through than anything Field and Perrotta telegraph for us. After one of her trysts with Brad, Sarah looks at herself in the mirror, and her face shows everything we need to know about how this character has woken from her stupor. It's a rare moment when Field has faith in his actor's ability to convey what we need to know. He lets the other performers sleepwalk through the bulk of the movie, but he can't push Winslet down with his heavy hands.
Field errs even further by keeping Perrotta's secondary story line about a sexual predator in the neighborhood and the disgraced cop who is obsessed with him. As the story lines continually intersect, the reasoning becomes clear with the subtlety of a hammer blow. They want us to see that Brad and Sarah's disregard for their marriages can be just as dangerous for their children as the flasher in the trenchcoat. The problem is, this other plot line is not that interesting, and the more we cut away to see the characters it focuses on, the more tedious Little Children gets. Are the scenes of the cop (Noah Emmerich) whining and drunk meant to be black comedy? Satire? It doesn't really matter, because by the time both stories come to a head and collide once and for all, nothing about Little Children is succeeding on any front. It's just a multi-car pile-up of plot points. I don't care what the narrator thinks, I wasn't ready to give anyone involved with this movie a second chance.
Had Field stuck to the story about the affair and not pushed so hard to make us think his film was so damn important, Little Children might have worked. Another good edit at the screenplay stage could have saved the movie from being such a labored bore. As it stands, Little Children is 130 minutes of cinema, and I felt each and every one. I was stuck in a stale union with a film I had to see through to the end, and I'd have shacked up with just about any other movie if it meant I could get out of there.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.