Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 18, 2007)
When we view the Oscar nods every year, there’s always one movie in there that gets a handful of prominent nominations even though hardly anyone ever heard of it. For 2006, Little Children was that flick. It earned consideration for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. Though it won none of these prizes, at least the nominations gave it a higher public profile.
Children shows the concerns that come when convicted sex offender Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley) moves into a quiet New England community. We meet the local moms, with an emphasis on Sarah (Kate Winslet) and her daughter Lucy (Sadie Goldstein). She brings Lucy to a park where she encounters tightly wound fellow moms Mary Ann (Mary B. McCann), Cheryl (Marsha Dietlein Bennett) and Theresa (Trini Alvarado). They moon over a stay-at-home dad they call “the Prom King”. Brad (Patrick Wilson) went to law school but can’t pass the bar, so documentarian wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) earns the dough.
Sarah stirs up the other moms when she approaches Brad on a bet. To create a sensation, she hugs and then kisses Brad. Though this starts as a gag, Brad and Sarah develop fantasies about each other. They begin to frequent the same pool, where they get to know more about each other. They also develop an idyllic routine where they avoid desired romance in exchange for an innocent friendship.
Eventually that changes, as their relationship develops into a full-fledged affair. The movie follows their interaction as well as elements of Ronnie’s life and his treatment in the community. We see various complications and intersections among these topics.
Children marks director Todd Field’s first effort behind the camera since 2001’s In the Bedroom. Like that flick, Children looks at the “behind closed doors” reality of seemingly quiet communities. Unlike Bedroom, however, we don’t get a particularly tight, insightful glimpse of the circumstances.
When I reviewed Bedroom, I applauded the movie’s subdued nature and its lack of histrionics. Children follows along the same lines, but it may actually be a little too restrained. At 137 minutes, it provides a rather long tale, one whose point doesn’t always seem clear.
Indeed, even when the credits rolled at the end, I still wasn’t too sure what to make of what I’d just watched. The excessive running time definitely creates some of the problems. Children takes such a slow, languid pace that it often appears to be standing still. Some of that may be intentional to demonstrate the ennui of suburban life, but it doesn’t work well for a film. Instead, it just makes the viewer impatient for something – anything – to happen. Not much does occur, so the viewer may start to drift off along the way.
The bifurcated nature of the story also forms some issues. The Sarah/Brad plot definitely takes priority, but the Ronnie story also makes up a major topic. The movie fails to connect these two terribly well. Instead, Children often feels like two different movies accidentally cobbled into one. The two stories eventually intersect in an awkward, unlikely manner, but much of the time, the split personality creates more distractions than anything else.
With such a long running time, I’d expect really good character development, but that doesn’t really occur. We get a pretty decent feel for Sarah and Brad, but the others end up as much more one-dimensional. This is a particular shame in the case of Ronnie, who doesn’t truly emerge as anything other than a stock movie pervert.
Actually, in a way I like the fact that Children shows that prison didn’t magically expunge his desires. He remains quite sick in the head, as only kids turn him on and women do nothing for him. I expected the movie to depict him as more of an innocent victim to contrast with the freaked out locals who act as though Hannibal Lecter moved in down the street.
I think the film could have better balanced those two extremes, though. Ronnie is a mildly sympathetic character, as he clearly desires to lose his abnormal desires, but the stereotypical pervert side of things becomes more dominant. The casting of the creepy-looking Haley doesn’t help; it’s very hard to disassociate his ferret-like appearance with the child molester mold. Ronnie doesn’t emerge as much more than the kind of sicko you’d find in a TV movie, and the story falters due to that.
Indeed, the movie itself doesn’t seem to know how it wants to depict Ronnie. During the first half, we sense that it paints the locals as judgmental, basically the villagers to poor Ronnie’s Frankenstein monster. The pivotal scene in which he visits the pool and causes a panic feels like something out of Jaws, and it paints the locals as irrational bigots. However, as the flick progresses, we see that they were basically right; Ronnie still is a mess psychologically and he really shouldn’t be trusted around kids. I don’t think the story works well when it tries to have things both ways.
Children comes with a lot of narration, a technique I don’t like. Those elements seem contrived and unnecessary. I think the movie can deliver the exposition without so much stilted delivery along the way. That’s one of the elements in Children that makes it a little more artsy and self-conscious than it should be.
While I can’t say that I disliked Little Children, I think it ends up as a missed opportunity. It doesn’t delve into its subjects with real insight, and it moves so slowly that it threatens to lose the viewer along the way. In addition, it often feels too contrived and forced for its own good. The film deserves credit for its difficult subject matter but simply doesn’t work as a package.