Monday, January 08, 2007

REVIEW: Little Children


"Little Children" is a study in how you can redeem a movie in the finale. For those who've already seen it, please understand that I don't mean to infer that the film is saved by the surprisingly "hoo-rah for traditionalism!" bent of it's eventual "moral," but by the way such comes about by turning what for 2 1/2 hours has seemed a formulaic entry in a tired subgenre entirely on it's head. For nearly the entire length of the feature I was torn between admiring it's craft and despising it's cliche "middle-class hell" moralizing, only to realize too late I'd been played: What at first seems to be either another slog through "suburbanites, what a bunch of easy-to-satirize la-hooo-zers!" "American Beauty" territory or the longest, most-predictable (but best-acted) episode of "Desperate Housewives" ever... instead winds up as something poignant, subtle and in some respects even cautionary, think Douglas Sirk adapting "Lolita."

What we have, at least at first, is another long-form goof on how plastic and soulless suburbia is, especially for Sarah (Kate Winslet,) whom we gather became a wife/mommy without fully wanting or meaning to, and now finds herself feeling trapped and pining for her romantic, adventurous "free" days as an English Lit major. She maintains her sanity by insisting to herself that she remains a more evolved being than her fellow playground moms, Jane Goodall among tupperware-thumping apes, and tends to regard her toddler daughter and internet-porn addicted husband as some sort of alien creatures. She'd be, at first, wholly unsympathetic right off the bat, save that she's well written and Winslet seems incapable of giving an unengaging performance.

In any case, Sarah soon finds release by buddying up to Brad (Patrick Wilson) the mysterious, hunky stay-at-home dad dubbed "the prom king" by the chattering playgrounders. A passionate affair soon follows, driving further changes for both: Suddenly, Sarah is all girlish and smiley again, while Brad re-discovers his college football glory days with a local night league. Yes, all the hush-hush sneaking and snuggling is making them "young" again, and we're in (seemingly) familiar territory, waxing the romantic about a generation's attempt to remain perpetually 19. This would be our first major story-arc, and if you've seen every (or even most) other arthouse-indie about recuperative infidelity in the 'burbs you'll probably think you know where this is headed...

Story #2 concerns the mounting neighborhood fervor as paroled sex-offender Ronnie (indecent exposure to a minor) moves back in with his aging mother. Played by Jackie Earle Haley, (still in the midst of an amazing "comeback".. in movies people aren't seeing much,) Ronnie is the obsession of the neighborhood vigilantes who are sure that he's not going to change. As one truly tragic scene demostrates, they're probably right. The antagonism is coming from a bullish, disgraced former cop, and the constant background noise of a train-whistle helpfully indicates that the two stories are on a collision course. But if you think you can guess how it'll wrap up.. so did I, and I was wrong.

I'll be honest, I was pretty ambivalent about this one beforehand (and during a good deal of it, too.) I mainly showed up to weigh in for awards season, and out of adherence to a personal rule that I see anything Kate Winslet makes as soon as I can (and in this case, the sub-entry to that rule to see anything she's in that's sure to include nudity sooner than that.) And while I'm still surprised to have enjoyed the film as a whole, my adoration for it's lead actress remains consistent: She's still probably the best actress of her generation, still improbably gorgeous even as the film tries (mightily but unsuccessfully) to make her "frumpy" in the first act, and still gifted with a certain fearlessness in regards to physical performance.

(Small note, in this regard, to critics and best actress awards voters who like to toss around that word "fearless": Playing an "inspiring teacher," the movingly-handicapped or doning piles of "ugly" makeup is not "fearless." An actress in her 30s going nude and feigning [implied] anal intercourse on the attic floor after having had two kids in real life... thats a little closer to fearless.)

It's not a masterpiece. The acting is excellent from a great cast, Todd Fields' direction is sharp and crisp, the script is literate (even the initially-cheesy voiceover narration works) and I love the final act and the realization that the film has an entirely different take on it's subject matter than it first appeared. However, at 2 1/2 hours it's much too long in the 2nd act (seriously, guys, I like to watch Mrs. Winslet bounce around naked as much as anyone, but padding the movie is still padding the movie.) In addition, while performed by capable actors, some of the supporting cast are played much too broadly and become cartoons, particularly Gregg Edelmen as Winslet's one-dimensional husband and Mary B. McCann as the icy uber-mom Mary Ann.

Still, it wasn't at all what I was expecting and I'll call it a happy surprise. Overall, reccomended.