Five years after rethinking and remapping the idea of the dramatic thriller in the now-classic In the Bedroom, Todd Field finally swings back into the director's chair with an adaptation of Tom Perrotta's Little Children after a sadly unsuccessful attempt to film an adaptation of Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road. Any filmmaker would reconsider their style after five years, and Field is no different: Little Children has little or nothing to do with In the Bedroom in mood, tone or story.
In a small Northeastern community, Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) secretly has a huge cult following. A gaggle of housewives, including obvious peculiarity Sarah (the consistently outstanding Kate Winslet), adore Brad from afar as he takes his son to the playground (he's a stay-at-home dad) each day, whispering his nickname between them: "The Prom King." After a dare that leads to a small kiss, Sarah and Brad start spending time together at the town pool with their kids. Rumors fly and the neighborhood becomes a cauldron of suspicion as the town learns that a reformed pedophile named Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley) has just moved back to the neighborhood.
Field sees social disturbances as a sort of miasma, collecting over the trees of the placid neighborhood and slowly creeping into bloodstreams. Brad's wife (Jennifer Connelly, doing what she can with the film's most lazily written part) brings home the bacon in the family, causing seizures of resentment from Brad who slowly feels like he deserves to act the way he does. However, Field never lets us get a grip on his film (that's a compliment) and it offers a strange way into understanding his bruised characters. Ronnie, played to eerie perfection by Haley, seems to understand his disease and act more normal than any other character, until an earth-shattering scene after a forced date with a woman (an uncredited, delicate Jane Adams). The force of the film is that it never stops springing surprises and it constantly crafts scenes like these that cause eyes to widen.
Brad and Sarah's relationship, not anything specifically new to current cinema, lies at the heart of Little Children. But the "little children" that run around in the parks and the pool are not the children that one must worry about. Ronnie is a danger, sure, but he has no weight against a neighborhood that has become a hub of paranoia and fear. Sarah and Brad seem to revert to their childhood states of believing life and love to be mere simple things to believe in without consideration, and therefore, they ignore what their homes have become. Their opposite is Larry (the extraordinary Noah Emmerich), an ex-cop whose life has silently slid off the map to the point where all he can do is cultivate and spread the fear of the neighborhood. Political allegories abound, the mid-life-crises-cum-social-dystopia that Field creates seems somewhat revitalized in the films first three quarters.
Inexplicably, Field dulls his film with a shrewdly complacent ending. In any other film, somewhat placid endings for the main characters would be fine, but not for a film that defies expectations and turns up surprises almost as much as its predecessor. It comes off as simply coming to a halt, running on fumes. In the long run, this doesn't negate the film's stronger, immensely stinging moments (the scene with Ronnie at the pool has a sly, Hitchcock scent to it). Little Children may not be the great follow-up we wanted after In the Bedroom, but it still verifies that the skill he showed there is no fluke. You still leave the film with a strange sense of discontent that is hard to shake off, but I doubt it will last another five years.
Reviewed as part of the 2006 New York Film Festival.
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