March 3, 2024 Breaking News, Latest News, and Videos

At The Movies: Look At All the Lonely People: Little Children ***1/2

Sasha Stone, Mirror Film Critic

There is Something about Todd Field’s stirring new film, Little Children, that recalls the online classifieds site, Craig’s List. What people really want, who they really are behind everything they’ve cultivated over the years, is exposed in a few sentences that call out to someone, anyone, to free them from themselves and the lives they’ve built.

Little Children opens on an ordinary playground in an upper middle class town where perfect wives raise their perfect children. It’s a step beyond Stepford Wives because these women aren’t “housewives” in the traditional sense, they’re helicopter parents – the next generation after the baby boomers all went into therapy and our culture fell pray to umbrella fear. Our solution is to be perfect: the safest car seat, the safest neighborhood, only breast milk, all cotton diapers, the perfect food – macrobiotic food! Parents in this film are the kind who believe that everything will turn out okay if we’re perfect. But alas, we aren’t perfect. We are terribly, tragically imperfect. And things don’t always turn out okay.

Into this world, graduate student Sarah (a drabbed down and amazing Kate Winslet) is bringing up her own daughter. She doesn’t fit in with the rest of the moms at the park; after all, she forgot the snack AGAIN. After the perfect mom offers up her kid’s bag of goldfish, she tells Sarah, “I just hate to see her suffer.”

The park sojourns are what moms do with their kids in the afternoons because, natch, their husbands bring home the bacon. There is something hard and wound up with these women, and at first they are the hardest to like. Their kids are held on such a tight leash you can’t imagine there would be any room for making mistakes. Ever. Sarah, by contrast, is bored already with being a mother. She is suffocating under the weight of it but refuses to hire child care for her neglected daughter. When her daughter speaks to her, she answers with a harsh “What!” As if, how dare this little needy person take anything more from her.

In truth, as we come to discover, Sarah is the truly needy one – she is the empty vessel craving penetration of all levels – sexual, intellectual, emotional. One day at the park, a handsome dad known to the other moms as the Prom King strikes up a conversation with Sarah. She flirts with him and eventually coaxes a public kiss out of him partly to horrify the other moms and partly to show them that she’s better than they are because she isn’t confined by anything or anyone.

The kiss leaves both Sarah and the Prom King, now identified as Brad (too pretty to be true Patrick Wilson), buzzing with the sensual thought. Both are in marriages that aren’t working on the inside. Brad, a stay-at-home dad who has failed the Bar Exam twice, is married to the perfect, beautiful Kathy – a documentary filmmaker who makes all of the money and the rules. Sarah is married to a man who spends his free time obsessing on an Internet porn goddess, Slutty Kay. He has tuned out his own fidelity.

Sarah and Brad spend more time together and, eventually, their friendship turns to mutual physical need. Sarah, hardly Brad’s type, imagines an unimaginable life with him. He yearns for simpler times with her. Adding still another dimension to this complex film is that a sex offender has moved back home after doing time. Everyone in town is equally horrified – as long as they have Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley making an astonishing comeback) around, they can always point to him and say, see, at least I’m not THAT bad.

Little Children is Todd Field’s second effort after dazzling the critics with the Oscar-nominated In the Bedroom. But Tom Perrotta, who wrote the novel and co-wrote the screenplay, is the creator of this world. They are collaborators here in the best sense. Haley and Noah Emmerich produce the finest work of their careers as sideline players. Winslet delivers a layered, ultimately thrilling performance – so rare to find fully fleshed out female characters anymore.

Little Children is no breezy day at the movies. It is as hard and painful as it is funny. But if you look hard enough, you might see something you’ve never seen before. It might entertain you. It might horrify you. It will definitely leave you changed.

Little Children opens on October 6.

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