"Little Children" (2006) is based upon a book of the same name, and it's literary roots are inescapable. Beginning with the redundant narration (a character will look out a window, and the narration will intone "Sarah looked out the window". We needn't be told about what is plainly visible on screen) provided by "Frontline" narrator Will Lyman, more and more elements pile up chaining the film to the book. The structure and story feels at once overly busy and lacking, as a bulk of the meat was no doubt stripped to fit the running length, yet not enough care was taken to rework the story so as fit a cinematic frame.
Sarah (Kate Winlset, brilliant as usual, and only one more nude role away from her obligatory Oscar) is a stay at home mom who spends her days taking her toddler to the park and moping about her huge house and mentally deriding three fellow moms at the park, who each feel distressingly like stock characters from a yogurt commercial.
One day, Brad (Patrick Wilson, affable yet unbelievably toned for a middle-class, American dad) comes to the park with his small child. He and Sarah strike up a friendship, which starts as an attempt to freak out the other park moms (and it does to a surprising degree, when Brad and Sarah share a kiss. The moms come running; "Come on, kids. You can't see two people kissing, EW!"), but it soon blossoms into something more intimate.
This is upper-middle-class suburbia, most likely somewhere in New England, and things are accordingly bland and at times pathetic. Brad mopes about his beautiful wife who brings home all the bacon, and wastes time nostalgically watching skateboarders when he should be studying for the Bar exam; we realize that he is probably not that bright. His ex-cop buddy spends his nights harassing a local sexual deviant named Ronnie who has recently returned from a prison sentence for exposing himself to a child.
Lifted to sympathetic authenticity by Jackie Earle Haley, Ronnie is a lonely, complex, sad individual. He lives with his loving and protective mother (Phillis Somerville), and these two are the only remotely likable characters in the whole drama. Demonized by his neighbors, Ronnie spends most of his time indoors, and eventually unravels quite disturbingly when tragedy finally strikes.
Throughout the film is the sound of a train in the background. This is not only ambient noise, but a clear signal that some kind of impending and life-shattering event is heading for our protagonists. Once this factor was gleaned early on, this reviewer was expecting something gloriously tragic, or at least some kind of profound climax that would leave the parties involved irrevocably changed. Not to spoil things, but this was not found to be the case.
The title of "Little Children" does not refer so much to the toddlers, who are treated increasingly, by their parents and by the filmmakers, as mere props, but to the adults. Our stars, Brad and Sarah, each have very good lives that they are inexplicably unsatisfied with, yet we are meant to feel sorry for them. Meanwhile, the "villain" of the story, Ronnie, ends up getting most of our sympathy because he has real issues that he tries desperately to surmount, with the help of his mother, while facing hostility from all sides. What sells him to us and flays open his soul is a scene wherein he attempts a date. He and his date are both supremely awkward at first, but they soon warm up to each other, and there is the briefest of moments when Ronnie perks up when the young lady begins to talk about a personal struggle in her life that he identifies with. Haley, in this moment, shows us that Ronnie is in many ways gentle and caring, and here in lies the tragedy of the man. He would be a perfectly normal and acceptable human being if not for his impenetrable sexual disorder. It is a heartrending realization, and we immediately want to push aside Sarah and Brad and their pathetic non-problems.
This film real didn't need to happen, not in this form, anyhow. It can't decide whether to be faithful to the book or completely break free from it, and so it is kept from existing completely in the realm of cinema. The whole thing ends up playing like a superbly acted, 2 hour commercial for the book. The only unique element here is Ronnie, and the film really should have been all about him.
There are some strong points. The cinematography is quite good, being gorgeous with out calling attention to itself. And there are some qatsiesque sequences with excellent use of juxtaposition that suggest that director Todd Field has some understanding of the cinematic language, which makes the literary dependence and lazy, convenient ending all the more curious.