MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

Little Children Movie Review

It is hard to figure out where to start discussing Little Children.

It is easy enough to say that it is the best American film of 2006 to date, since it is.

To say that this film is one of the great sophomore efforts of all time (by director/co-writer Todd Field) is no overstatement. And to write that Tom Perrotta is fortunate that this only the second film made from one of his books, since seven years after Election this is one of the few films worthy of being a successor to that unexpected achievement, would be fair, but too easy.

One could easily assert that Little Children is the film that Ang Lee and Alan Ball and Robert Redford and Paul Thomas Anderson and even Woody Allen have been trying to make for a long time. (Allen had the most success with the magnificent Crimes & Misdemeanors.) Others, like Alejandro Inarritu and Steven Soderbergh and Alexander Payne and Cameron Crowe and Jim Brooks and the Coen Brothers are working on similar canvases, but are too interested in entertaining to go somewhere quite this dry and relentless (though they often come close and achieve greatness on different levels). I love me some Malick, but he wants to let the wind blow through our hair and to allow us to reflect on ourselves even as we watch his movies. In England & Ireland, Jim Sheridan and Alan Parker and Neil Jordan and Mike Leigh have gone here and have probably come closer to this work in defining their cultures than American filmmakers previously have. But the one filmmaker whose voice is clear and clean in Little Children, aside from Todd Field, is Stanley Kubrick’s. This is not an imitation (in spite of some very specific steals), but Field’s breathed in and assimilated extension of The Master’s Voice.

But I still haven’t told you much about the movie.

As much as I want to offer an easy description of the film, it’s not a possibility. Confirming that is New Line’s terrific, but narrow, trailer for the movie. They decided, understandably, to focus on “The Affair” in the film. But man, I am here to tell you… it’s just the appetizer.

I keep finding myself singing Pete Seeger’s “Little Boxes,” currently enjoying renewed fame as the theme song of Showtime’s first great non-niche series, Weeds, to myself when I think of this film…

“Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes, little boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.

There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.”

There is something about the light heart behind that song and the simple understanding of human nature that connects to the film for me (much more than the TV series, actually). We are not all the same. And none of us is all that different. We are all made of the same ticky-tacky.

In Little Children’s case, “we” are stay-at-home mothers and stay-at-home-fathers and working moms and working dads and convicted sex offenders and the mothers of convicted sex offenders and cops and the handicapped and the emotionally handicapped and neighbors and of course, lots of little children of many different ages.

We are all so unique. We are all so different. Our decision-making is so inevitably passionate and so inevitably rational.

This is the remarkable power of Little Children. And, make no mistake, it will take a lot of people more than a moment to get used to that power.

The film is very, very funny, but audiences are afraid to laugh at a lot of the humor. After all, how funny are cheating and perversion and mean-spiritedness and outright stupidity? Very funny. But it’s a Kubrickian humor… tough and more than a little shocking.

One of the devices is a rather unexpected voiceover that is at first discomfiting, but which clarifies its value as it continues. (The familiar voice is Will Lyman, who does the voiceovers for Frontline on PBS… which, not so coincidentally, is the network the film’s Kathy makes docs for.) But Todd Field keeps the voiceover (which is almost all directly out of the Perrotta book) within its own realm. It has a sense of humor, but it never falls into comedy.

The most talked about element of the film will be the convicted sex offender with a proclivity for little children. But anyone who would call it “that child molester movie” would be simplifying beyond reason. The character, played by Jackie Earle Haley, comes home to his mother, played by the amazing Phyllis Somerville. (She should be Oscar bait. Breathtaking work.) And this character is so complex and real that it really stands up there with some of the greats. This man knows what he is and he knows what he isn’t. And he struggles. And his mother struggles. And as tough as it is to watch at times without wincing, its truth is profound.

Winslet rarely misses. And her turn here is layered in ways you can’t imagine even as you watch it. She plays a character who thinks she knows her parameters… but until they are challenged, she doesn’t. This probably should be her Oscar winner.

Patrick Wilson is surprisingly right in his role. Some have suggested that he is a little too much the character… a little too easy to understand. But I think it is daring to be that open.

And the most underappreciated performance in those three fronting leads will surely be Jennifer Connelly’s. But it really is one of her best ever. She plays The Perfect Woman. But as we all know, no one really is perfect. And while we never get too much range from the character, Connelly breathes her in a daring and unselfish way that I really admired. It’s one of those roles that feels so real that people won’t realize how structured a performance it is.

Todd Field has made a big step as a director here. He has taken his In The Bedroom skills and his passion for Kubrick and added his own twists of style and skill. There isn’t a shot in the movie that feels wrong. Whether it’s a table scene with four characters who are each in a completely different place emotionally or a scene underwater meant to force/allow us to see through the eyes of a sex offender or a satirical take on football, Field uses the whole toolbox with assurance and detail. And any time you get the feeling that maybe he got the wrong performance out of someone, the reason why it is perfection is right around the corner.

Little Children is the first American masterpiece of 2006. We’ll be chewing on this one for a long time to come.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon