James Stewart stars as a railroad man hired to secretly carry a payroll despite his suspected connections to outlaws
Kate Winslet stars in this finely-observed contemporary re-telling of 'Madame Bovary', set against the backdrop of a town obsessed with a sex offender arriving in the neighbourhood.
Young mothers sit at a park bench watching their toddlers play. An arch voiceover dwells on the manners of this suburban coven. This literary narrator notes how one of their number, Sarah Pierce (Winslet) feels apart from Soccer Mom concerns of rice cakes, snack times, organic this and organic that. Young father, Brad (Wilson) enters the park, pushing a stroller with his son upon his shoulders. The moms call him 'The Prom King' and each has their own unspoken fantasy about him. Sarah wagers she can get his number but, in a moment of unexpected passion, persuades Brad to kiss her, in clear view of the children. Thus, Sarah puts herself beyond the pale.
Modern parenting, its demands, anxieties and taboos, has profoundly altered middle-class relationships, jangling the sexual ties between husband and wife and, on a larger scale, seeding communities with fears rational and irrational, from pollutants in the food chain to paedophiles in the playground. Contrary winds of desire bind the parent - the centrifugal pursuit of self-gratification, the centripetal deferring of individual need for the good of the little ones.
Brad and Sarah yearn for lost selves. He takes up football again when he really should be studying for his law exam. She keeps a room of her own full of the literature she studied as a grad student. But as one of those classics was Gustave Flaubert's 'Madame Bovary', the story of a bourgeois woman who is damned by her adultery, Sarah and Brad's relationship cannot remain platonic for long.
Little Children opens with a slow movement over porcelain figurines of children surrounded by antique ticking clocks. This collection belongs to the mother of convicted sex offender Ronald James McGorvey (Haley) who has recently moved into the neighbourhood. His arrival upsets retired policeman Larry Hedges (Emmerich), a livid, damaged man who harasses McGorvey even as his own life is falling apart. Just at the point at which Brad and Sarah are consummating their relationship in the laundry room during the children's nap time, our attention is transferred to McGorvey's attempts at dating, doomed by the compulsions of his "psycho-sexual disorder".
In an alternative, saner universe than this one, Little Children would be garlanded with awards, all the way from Winslet's ferocious, self-exposing sex scenes to Haley's sympathetic portrait of a modern bogeyman. His McGorvey combines a fragile, timid exterior with a ruthless animalistic need, as if a tiny masturbatory engine had been installed into one of his mother's porcelain figurines.
Imagine a young Tom Hanks taking on the role of neighbourhood perv, or Tom Cruise doing it. Imagine them taking the podium to give a speech lauding the unsung heroism of neighbourhood pervs through the ages... Since he was a child star in the Bad News Bears, Haley's career has wandered off into roles as stock weirdo in straight-to-video pulp. This performance merits the kind of accolades bigger names pick up for daring to perform with a lisp. Phyllis Somerville as McGorvey's mother is also intriguing; she knows what her son has done, but she also knows there is good in him, if only he could find a nice woman to help him with his urges.
Simply, Little Children has the kind of mature and insightful observations about suburbs last seen in John Updike's 'Couples'. There are echoes of Magnolia in its winding through a community and American Beauty in addressing suburban angst, but it is more accurate in its subdued characterisations than either.
For most of Little Children, director Todd Field and his co-writer Tom Perrotta reclaim the suburbs from lurid hyperrealities. Where American Beauty had plate-throwing at the dinner table, Little Children watches Brad's wife Kathy (Connelly) luxuriate at the perfection of her sleeping son's little foot. Taking the son into the marital bed, making him the object of the hugs and kisses that would once have been showered upon Brad, this is how modern parenting leads to the death of sex.
Like Sam Mendes's debut and the TV show 'Desperate Housewives', Todd Field's film adopts the distancing, anthropological voiceover, treating the suburbs as if they are a strange and unfamiliar land. The device is less welcome in Little Children. Perhaps it is intended to echo Flaubert's authorial tones in 'Madame Bovary', perhaps it is the voice of America itself. Either way, it feels over-literary, interfering with our eavesdropping upon this heartland.
More than just another dissection of suburban sexual frustration, its concern with children, parents and those of us who lie somewhere in-between make Little Children a minor masterpiece.
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