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Festival Review: Little Children

A Review from the 44th New York Film Festival

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Festival Review: Little Children

Patrick Wilson and Kate Winslet in Little Children

© New Line
The critic in the seat behind me started mouthing off before the final image had faded from the screen: "I thought this was gonna be a parody of American Beauty," he announced grandly, "but then it turned into straight-up American Beauty!" Certainly, there are better reference points for tragic tales of suburban despair and desire--such as Madame Bovary, which the movie helpfully provides in an actual book club scene. But as much as I resented commentary before the credits were even rolling, the loudmouthed critic had a point: Todd Field's follow-up to In the Bedroom seems terribly confused about whether it wants to be literary drama or out-and-out satire.

Kate Winslet in Little Children

© New Line
In Little Children, the Bovary role of unhappily married woman struggling with unfulfilled desires is played by Kate Winslet, mother to little Lucy (Sadie Goldstein) and second wife of a man whose job is only described as "lying" (Gregg Edelman.) The object of her lust is Brad (Patrick Wilson), the stay-at-home husband of Jennifer Connelly. Brad, in the midst of a personal crisis, worries about flunking the bar exam yet again and would rather hang with the local skater kids.

Brad and Sarah (Winslet) meet on the playground (of course), under the jealous eyes of judgmental housewives, and soon they're having sweaty laundry room sex. The suburban community is rounded out by a pedophile sex offender who can clear out the public pool in twenty seconds flat (Jackie Earle Haley), his loving mother (Phyllis Somerville), and the bitter ex-cop who wants to chase them out of the neighborhood (Noah Emmerich.)
Based on the novel by Tom Perrotta (Election), Little Children wants to be biting-funny and literary-earnest all at once, but the flimsy narrative can't quite handle the split. Field's strength is the careful attention to the ebb and flow of human emotion, and Little Children begins as the kind of movie where even the villains and minor characters are allowed a rich interior life. When Little Children is funny, it can be very funny; the hilarity, unfortunately, is quickly snuffed by too many pat, creaky literary devices.

Winslet's husband, for instance, remains a sad caricature who whacks off to bad Internet porn. Brad's mid-life obsession with skateboarding comes off as the kind of idea somebody tossed out in a creative writing workshop, and worst of all, the first and last act of the film are weighed down by completely unnecessary voiceover narration. The plot resolves much too neatly, and the moral we're left with appears to be: "Don't leave the suburbs--it's much too dangerous!"
Undeniable craft and skill oozes from every handsome, sunlight-dappled shot of Little Children, but a little bit more mess and adventure would have done the film good. In his opening shot, Field shows us close-ups of a collection of porcelain statuettes of children, symbols of repressed desire--and you just know they will get smashed before the film is over. Is it asking too much that Field had the courage to smash his overly crafted narrative a little, too, and give it some more life?

I've been told it's bad form to compare every movie I see to another, as-yet unreleased movie, but once again it strikes me how absurd Little Children looks compared to John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus, which apparently I can't stop talking about. Shortbus provides the joyously alive downtown version to Little Children's overwrought suburban tale. I can't wait for it to open.
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