Todd Field’s Little Children, based on the book by Tom Perrotta, is one of the finest screen adaptations I have ever seen, remaining faithful not only to the characters and story, but the overall tone. And above all, it is a tone of chronic dissatisfaction that pervades; how the lives we lead become routine and intolerable, if only because of a gnawing self-hatred that is usually directed towards addiction and obsession. More than that, though, and having now seen Field’s take on a wonderful novel, it is more apparent than ever that what truly cripples us is a creeping infantilism; societal in scope, yes, but exceedingly ruinous at an individual level. The title says it all, really, and perhaps it is an obvious observation to conclude that the wee ones running about are not in fact the real children of this tale. Still, and without a trace of moral righteousness, the film remains a defiant call to arms; a furious, hilarious, epoch-defining push to grow the fuck up. Such a movement could, if misinterpreted, be assumed to have politically conservative, or even religious roots, but it is far from a punishing lecture. We are not drowning because of our sins, or failure to find Jesus, or even our assorted sexual experimentations. Instead, we have failed because responsibility — or even living up to one’s obligations — have taken on a voluntary nature, as if upheaval is acceptable so long as feelings are explored and options pursued. It’s the Me Decade writ large.
This is the very thing that drives two of the film’s main characters — Sarah (Kate Winslet), a tired housewife married to corporate guru Richard (Gregg Edelman), who once went as far as securing a Master’s degree, but now spends her time running after her daughter Lucy, and Brad (Patrick Wilson), a reluctant house husband who finished law school, but has yet to pass the bar exam. While he spends his days putting off another effort and taking his son Aaron to the park, his wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) is working as a documentary filmmaker. Both marriages are strained in their own way, but it is to the film’s credit that neither cuckold — Richard or Kathy — is a grotesque figure. Sure, Richard masturbates with a woman’s panties he purchased on the internet, but if that’s the worst of his transgressions, he’s practically a saint. And Kathy, for all we see, has the audacity to keep herself in great shape, work her ass off, and expect her husband to contribute now and again. Perhaps she’s lacking in something, but we can only assume that her status is a reminder to her husband that he lacks ambition, and as such is deemed failing to “support” him in his darkest hour. This relationship, at least from Brad’s perspective, is all about the male ego in its most narcissistic shading, as if home and family should wait with bated breath while the man decides what he wants to do with his life.
And consider Sarah’s “punishing” predicament. Her husband is a loving father, pays for a stunning hearth and home, and, besides a few healthy — and non-committal — fantasies involving the web’s “Slutty Kay”, is wholly devoted to his wife. Sure, he’s probably a bit boring (and a workaholic, if his salary is any indication), but Sarah’s frustration proves only that she failed to read the manual whereby it is written that marriage is not, nor should be, the equivalent of dating. Here again is infantilism at work: her courting period no doubt left her breathless, perhaps predominantly horizontal, and, confusing lust for love, she married the guy without first experiencing a little down time. And then her daughter was born, an event bound to remove the last scraps of freedom from the table, and she suddenly woke up feeling trapped and lonely. In a sense, there’s enough self-awareness on her part to be disgusted by her fellow moms at the park, but she is in fact similar in spirit, if not in pure action. She refuses to preoccupy herself with snacks and schedules, but she inhabits a cage of her own creation, and only her blindness assumes it to have other contributors.
After a dare by one of the moms, Sarah flirts with Brad in the park, and this leads to a hug and impromptu kiss. Sarah is, of course, awakened, but not because she has necessarily lacked passion in recent years (that remains unproven), but rather out of a childish need to feel wanted. In this sense, it’s always about the other. Brad, after all, is married to a beautiful woman, and yet he yearns, not because Sarah is more attractive, or even more pleasant to be around, but simply because she is different. For each participant in an affair, it is an opportunity to prove oneself all over again, only this time with the added buffer of having something to go back to if things turn sour. Again, mature adults should have no need to be at the center of anyone’s world, but once children enter the marital equation, it is inevitable that one of the parties — usually the man — feels excluded, or insufficiently fawned over. As idiotic and vain as it is, though, it is perfectly understandable, that is, if we accept the terms of our societal turn. Sarah and Brad are choosing to cheat and lie and indulge their lustful fantasies, but have they not heard an unending cacophony from their supporting cast of characters? Even when Brad admits that he feels bad for sleeping with Sarah (during a particularly heated laundry room tryst), he fails to suspend thrusting for a single moment. He knows he should be racked with guilt, but hasn’t a clue what to do about it. And so the lummox rides on to orgasm.
Sarah and Brad continue their romp, meeting each day at the public swimming pool, returning to Sarah’s house to set the kids down for a nap, and fucking before they wake up. It is everything an affair is meant to be (and more), and the pair pant like stallions from one orgasm to the next. They even talk of the assorted pressures they feel in their lives, but this is standard, almost rote conversation: not on the part of the script, but the characters themselves. After all, these things proceed much as they would anywhere else, and have become so routine in their own right that one wonders why anyone even bothers at all. Eventually, even the sex itself becomes as dull and predictable as that which one was presumably escaping from, and things either end with mutual resignation, or become like another marriage, where extraction becomes as difficult as the initial decision to commit adultery. Eventually, Brad promises to sweep Sarah away with the whirlwind, which is pure nonsense, of course (don’t these people read or watch movies?), but they act as if the possibilities are endless now that the husks of matrimony have been tossed aside. But the final meeting in the park, meant to be the pinnacle of romantic destiny, is interrupted –sent spinning in different direction altogether — by Brad’s need to impress a group of skateboarders. It’s a final act of juvenile irresponsibility for the spoiled snot, but it unintentionally pushes the characters back to their homes and marriages, which were likely not so bad to begin with. Playtime, at least for now, is over.
Brad and Sarah are the primary “little children” on display, but there are others. Take Ronald (Jackie Earle Haley), a recently paroled sex offender who once exposed himself to a child, and is now back living with his mother, perhaps the one person on earth who would give him a second chance. She’s not even above pushing him to date again, which he does with the expected disastrous results. The date goes rather well at first — he is soft-spoken, kind, and willing to listen to a nutcase prattle on about her breakdowns — but on the drive home, he asks to be taken to a poorly lit area where one assumes he will make his move. And so he does, only frantically masturbating not to her, but the fantasy of a young boy, at whose house he has stopped. Ronald tries to live normally, but as a registered sex offender, he is harassed unendingly, mainly by Larry (Noah Emmerich), a retired cop who seems a little too preoccupied, though not for the reasons we imagine. Even a day at the pool turns ugly, as the police are called and everyone in the water scrambles as if threatened by a shark. Again, in yet another wise move, the film, rather than making Ronald a martyr (or simply misunderstood), refuses to shy away from the fact that he is still a sick man (he dives underwater to better view the kiddies). Still, he’s decent enough to be somewhat sympathetic, if only because a child sex offender released from prison faces an impossible situation. A neighborhood — especially one with kids — has every right to know of his presence, but if a man has served his time, doesn’t he deserve an opportunity to move on with his life? Still, Ronald remains a child because he is given that second chance, yet flatly admits that he can’t control his compulsions. He wants the world his way, on his narrow schedule.
Larry’s failure to grasp adulthood is certainly a reason behind his relentless taunting, but he also channels his arrested development into a night football league (which Brad also joins), which also has the added bonus of being frightfully homoerotic. The games are vicious, rugged affairs, and they provide a fascinating insight into American masculine development. This reaches a satiric high point when the narrator of the piece — heretofore an omniscient god-like storyteller voiced by Will Lyman, best known for the PBS program Frontline — together with a pounding score straight from the old NFL Films archives, replays the big game as if life itself depended on the outcome. For the men involved, this flight from reality becomes more than a hobby, it sets the tone for a lifetime in fear of boredom and the corresponding efforts to allay that boredom with increasingly destructive pursuits. The games, then, are the manner by which these men — especially Larry — sustain the unaccountability of childhood. Certainly, this does not mean that each and every thing we do that retains a whiff of excitement or risk must be dismissed outright, but there is a strong argument to be made that certain choices close off others, and options are bound by the responsibilities those initial choices have created. In essence, I am saying that if one voluntarily enters into a marriage with a person you have presumably approved beforehand, and children follow, every action you take must come back to that arrangement. If you have a thought, it is for the kids. If you sense a change, you must assess it for the impact it will have on the children. They are your world, and if that means you must suffer in silence, boredom, monotony, and mindlessness, that is your lot and you must accept it without objection. If you expected (or now crave) otherwise, you have my sympathies. But there’s no going back. Buck up and live with it.
The characters in Little Children forget this simple lesson, and as such are cursed by unhappiness and depression. They ask, “is this all there is?” when “this is all there is” is the only appropriate statement. Instead, they whine and complain, bitch and moan, and wonder why their lives haven’t gone differently, when in fact everything turned out exactly according to plan. That is, if they’ve been paying attention. After all, these aren’t people reacting to tragedy or illness, but the simple failure of the world to conform to their own wishes and demands of it. Let’s face it: bored people are boring themselves, and if there’s an iron law guiding our lives, it is that the attitude of “wanting more” is usually an admission of not knowing what the hell we even want. Or if we even want anything at all. It’s always something, and we move from person to person and place to place, somehow thinking that this time, it will be different. But adults accept limitations, and though hopefully not complacent, they settle in to a certain degree because life on a tilt-a-whirl is nothing more than avoidance made flesh. This is the kind of movie — flawlessly executed, paced, and acted — that stimulates us to think in these terms, and about how many games we play with each other because we dare not admit the truth. Again, though, this is not a slog, or a drag, or a somber meditation on life as lived, but a funny, entertaining ride with a group of people we know all too well, and how it seems as if, increasingly, we are making this shit up as we go along. Just like little children.