Little Children (Todd Field, 2006)
Shelves of porcelain children and old fashioned clocks fill the first shots of Todd Field's sophomore feature Little Children. The haunting imagery wants to prepare us for what is to come: like those porcelain children who despite being confronted with the consonant movement of time will never grow up, the characters of this inglorious demystifier of suburban fantasies remain in a perpetual state of childhood.
The screenplay is adapted by Todd Field and Tom Perotta from Perotta's own novel. Perotta is famous for scripting Alexander Payne's Election (1999), a humorous look at high school politics mimicking the viciousness of larger scale American politics. In a way, Little Children seems to be the reverse of Perotta's own work in Election. Here, he addresses the immaturity of the middle-class American psyche by using stereotypes, aquarium-like settings, and a narrative of disarmingly simplistic conveniences. In Election, he forces us to look beyond the confines of the sheltered campus. In Little Children, he makes you uncomfortably dwell in a surreal suburban setting, until you are forced to understand the abnormal psyche that grows within the safety of America's own backyards.
The film is substantially different from Field's debut feature In the Bedroom (2001), which I thought was excellently subtle and suggestive, with a surprisingly simplistic narrative style that works very well. Little Children is a lot less subtle, in fact it is outrageously obvious that it can be criticized for spoonfeeding its audiences. Narration frequently accompanies every scene --- it almost feels like Field is walking you through the story, underestimating your intellect by being the patient storyteller to a group of drowsy toddlers. It somehow retains the source material's literary feel, but more importantly, the narration drives a humorous point: it insults you in the way Field insults his very own characters. He classifies his viewers among the childish citizens of that suburban community.
Each scene trembles with a mixture of annoyance and enchantment. In a way, every intelligent viewer wouldn't like being guided as to how to think or feel in a film. Terms such as heavy handed, pretentious, and glaring are fair in describing Field's tactics. Field's comedy can be summarized as visual or sitcomic; the group of stay-in mothers lusting over a hunky father give off an air of middle-brow humor more fitting for an HBO-financed comedy series. Even the drama feels a lot less subdued. Events happen with instantaneous contrivances. It's just far too simple to think seriously of: a mother (Kate Winslet) who discovers her husband sniffing panties while masturbating to internet porn, and a father (Patrick Wilson) who becomes worried about his manliness when his much too pretty and much too successful wife points out what he can and cannot charge to the family's credit line, suddenly land in a steaming affair that begins in the former's basement laundry room. The two married paramours' needs are far too fitted with each other that it begs you to just turn off your brain and watch every natural occurrence happens in predictable clockwork fashion.
The clear point of Field and Perotta is summed by the film's single astounding scene: during a warm day in the community pool, convicted sex offender Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley) wears his swimming goggles and fins and jumps into the pool. We see the world from his point of view: limbs and bodies of innocent children floating and swimming past, unaware of his existence. It's paradise. In a matter of minutes, he is noticed by a parent causing an uproar with every parent bringing out their children as if a shark infested the community pool. He still swims with indifference; probably with the hope of getting back that vision of paradise. In a way, that scene reveals all the characters' Peter Pan complex --- to see the world and its problems from the point of view of a child; where every action elicits predictable outcomes; where needs can be simply classified as in the case of the adulterous parents; where you can just swim by and not be treated with a hint of malice as in the case of the sex offender (who I thought was the film's most effective character; distinctly aware of his faults and his own complex but is persecuted for actively doing something about it). Yet, as the film's conclusion sarcastically pertains to, we all have to grow up and stop living a little child's fantasy.