I though a lot about 1999’s American Beauty while watching Little Children. Both films examine American suburban life. Both films play into the filmic stereotype that suburban existence is actually a terrible thing; that to be happy in this middle-class heaven is an elusive phantom. As Little Children began, I had a dÃ©jÃ vu moment and couldn’t help but get a little annoyed by the fact that I was seeing another film cover the same material.
Don’t get me wrong; Little Children is vastly different from American Beauty in terms of narrative and story, but the themes are largely the same. If I have one criticism of the film this would be it. The portrayal of the American suburbanite as a living charade is, for me at least, tired and – as a result – I found it, at times, difficult to feel empathy for Little Children’s characters. Their lives pale in comparison to many of the problems in the world that truly deserve attention and thus the film ends up feeling self-indulgent and overly introspective.
That said, Little Children is a stunning and enjoyable piece of cinema. Director Todd Field brings a film to the screen that will grow on you as you’re exposed to the lives of its characters and the connections they form between one another. It starts at a slow pace, but Field keeps things interesting by manipulating the perceptions you may have formed about his characters, while also including some great stylistic touches; the deep, descriptive voice-over is a highlight.
Nowhere else is this embodied so perfectly than in the character of Ronald McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley) a recently-released child sex offender who returns to suburbia and ‘normal’ life. Upon his return to the neighborhood, everyone is on high alert, posting warning flyers with his picture all over the place; an atmosphere of dread permeates much of the film as a result. It would have been so easy to maintain his vilification and keep Ronnie a monster but Field, by casting Haley (a small, frail and comic looking man) and by showing us his life at home – he still lives with his mother, turns the evil that the suburb fears so much into Little Children’s primary source of comic relief. That, I realise, is twisted (child molester as comedic device) but it is fascinating to watch and highlights Little Children’s real strength; the performances.
Haley might just be one of my new favorite actors and Winslet … well it’s Kate Winslet. She, as always, is superb. Even if Field had somehow managed to make a mess of large chunks of this film (which he doesn’t) the ensemble and individual performances would pull Little Children through.
Up for three Golden Globe Nominations (Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama: Kate Winslet and Best Screenplay – Motion Picture) Little Children is a film that would appear to have Oscar potential – at least among certain circles.
For this reviewer, however, it presents an audience with a great watch but one that ultimately we’ve seen before and that for me – the repetition and self loathing exhibited by its characters – is what keeps it from moving into the realm of a really great film.