Film Reviews (2006)  
  Little Children  
Little Children

Todd Field’s “Little Children” has the tone, pacing, and eye for details all great satires possess. Our introduction to Sarah (Kate Winslet) and her friends, all of them housewives too blinkered even to be desperate, as they gather in a Boston park for boot camp of child-rearing, is a tour de force of editing, camerawork, acting and writing. Field understands their iron-fisted tenderness, how they’re glumly restricted to vicarious desires. But though he’s tougher on the men, who appear like clumsy stagehands who have wandered into the middle of a Busby Berkeley routine, Field has a modicum of respect for these women. Despite hints of an acid scorn for the suburbs, Field mainly keeps to Sarah’s perspective, that of an alien anthropologist taking confused but respectful notes on this awesome consumer-powered machine she doesn’t understand. Importantly, Sarah is a bad mom because she’s a mediocre person, not because she has a soul and the others don’t.

The best touch is the dry third-person narrator, an older, aspirin-commercial voice which creates delightful comedic distance between the characters and the audience. No sooner are we starting to get hot under the collar with Sarah’s desire for Brad than the narrator tosses a bucket of water on the scene, often rendering one or both of them pathetic. The appearance of Brad’s sexual attraction to Sarah, which seems suffused with passion, is punctured by the voiceover which reveals that Brad is in fact coolly sizing her up, ending with his observation that “her eyebrows were too thick. But Brad decided that was okay”. In the beautiful afterglow of their first kiss, over a shot of Sarah wistfully dreaming of Brad in a park, the narrator dryly mocks Sarah’s wistfulness: “She felt as if she had been abducted by aliens and returned to Earth”. Immediately after a sympathetic scene in which we are shown that Brad’s son loves his mother more than him, Field cuts to a shot of Brad walking by a skate park, over which the voice intones “Every night the boy’s mother sent him to the library to study for the bar exam”. Who “the boy” might be, Brad or his son, is ambiguous, adding a killer comic touch to Brad’s hangdog pouting.

Strangely, this strength comes and goes in the film. At first the voiceover seems vital to establishing the relationships between the various objects in Field’s satiric space. But halfway through the story it lapses. Whole scenes pass by with no voiceover. This is the central problem of Field’s movie, because the narrator-less scenes thereby become unironic plays for our identification with Sarah, through which the film’s moral conflicts are refracted. During the scene in which “Madame Bovary” is discussed in Sarah’s book club, the film throws in with Sarah wholeheartedly, allowing Winslet to seduce us silently, make us accomplices to the throttled love in her heart. At first contemptuous of Emma, after her own adultery Sarah realizes she’s more like the fictional heroine than she thought. Her antagonist, the blonde housewife, calls Emma a slut, and we are meant to think that she is calling Sarah a slut, too, since rumors are swirling about Sarah’s affair with Brad. The satiric core vanishes in this scene. Field allows the effulgently earthy Winslet to reveal her longing and pain as an outsider but in so doing he collapses the satiric distance. It’s one of the early clues that Field isn’t quite in command; an actor himself, he seems too respectful of his cast to twist the knife when he should. Lacking the courage of its own pitiless vision of human weakness, “Little Children” is like a Todd Solondz movie inexplicably burdened with a conscience.

The ending, in a shapr turn, redeems something essential to the life which Field had spent the film’s first hour ridiculing. If Sarah’s decision not to leave her husband reflects a final, healthy break from her identification with Emma Bovary then it reveals a striking shallowness. Understanding for the first time the gravity of her infedility, and the immaturity of her own selfish desires, Sarah chooses the imperfection but solidity of home and hearth. Sarah’s moral crisis—to stay or follow her heart—is resolved in one momentous decision. But Emma’s fatal choices were made because of who she was—in fact, she had no choice. Sarah, recalling her days in grad school, calls Emma’s “rebellion” the acts of a pre-feminist martyr. This ignores the chilling determinism at the core of Flaubert’s novel. Emma’s tragedy, like Charles’, unfolds because she is at odds with the world, just as Homais triumphs because he is in harmony with it. Sarah nears the cliff’s edge and turns away, while the voiceover delivers the film’s message: whatever the errors of the past, and the problems of the present, the future is up in the air. Back to basics is prescribed. Raise our kids right, and all will be well. This is really the film’s most important theme. Field invites us to consider the question Hedges asks Brad, “Ever think about what ‘Homeland Security’ means?”  The film answers that with a final shot of a swingset over which the narrator intones Brad’s epiphany: “It had to start somewhere”. National and global security are failing because we aren’t getting the job done in our own homes.

Actually, earlier in the movie, musing on Homeland Security, and briefly alluding to the Iraq war, which has claimed the father of one of the film’s children, Field had already tipped his hand. “Little Children” is clearly a not-so-subtle allegory for America and its present social and political crises. Hedges, the troubled ex-cop who stands in for governmental authority, is, just as another character says he is, a “bully”. His touch football team’s name is the “Guardians”, their name on a t-shirt which Hedges wears in several scenes. The hypocrisy of a society that derives its moral power from blindly persecuting outsiders—the pervert McCorvey’s presence in the film acts as the ironic sucker-punch, since he is openly immoral where most of the respectable citizens who hate him are merely more adept at concealing their corruption—is an unequivocal message in the film. The “guardians” are to be feared as much as the bogeymen. But in a fallacy bound up with American self-regard, Field has Sarah decide to raise her daughter in the “sacred space” of the American home without reflecting that it is precisely this space which has created the illnesses his film diagnoses. At the moment she and her author appear to be soundly repudiated, in fact the suicide of Emma Bovary shames Fields’ story by demonstrating a much deeper, and truer, psychological complexity.

For Sarah is the latest in a long line of American characters made to comfort us into believing that moral regeneration is just a gesture away, in the same way a sexy figure is a diet away or spiritual growth is a set of books-on-tape away. Like Huck Finn tearing up his letter to protect Jim, our American models have shown us that the problems of the past do not matter so long as we are prepared to act well in the present. Our national DNA gives to every dawn the inspiring possibility of a New World. America is a nation of self-improvers, sympathetic to doers rather than thinkers, and it believes the decision to listen to “the better angels of our nature” is enough to set matters right; Fitzgerald caught the dream-lie of this with devastating accuracy in the young Gatsby’s self-improvement list. For his part, Field has made the dramatically sharp but intellectually confused “Little Children” at a time when the architects of the Iraq war are more or less admitting its failure, and the halo effect of the news these days, even in the mainstream, is to disabuse us all of the notion of American empire. Yet, faced with the task of cleaning up the bloody mess they’ve made, the American leadership has created—not unlike the living room full of middle-aged women reading “Madame Bovary” in the movie—a study group. Morality and ethics have been replaced by amnesia and action plans. Thus, Sarah’s decisive act of motherly love is hollow and unsatisfying. Really the only useful lesson is Sarah’s line to her daughter as she straps her into the minivan’s seat: buckle up, kids, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.