Review by Jack Foley
FIVE years ago director Todd Field attracted everyone’s attention with his compelling debut feature In The Bedroom which attracted considerable acclaim and awards buzz.
He repeats the trick with his second film Little Children, an equally absorbing picture that’s beginning to generate some serious awards buzz for its star, Kate Winslet.
In both films, Field shows an ability to explore difficult and complex issues in a thoughtful, sensitive way, affording his actors the chance to really get beneath their characters in a way that makes them all the more human.
But whereas In The Bedroom examined bereavement and revenge, Little Children takes a look at issues such as parental angst, self identity, how people judge one another and fidelity.
The film primarily focuses on Sarah (Winslet), an over-educated mother who finds herself trapped in the Boston suburb of Bennington amid a gaggle of aspirational mothers who clearly view themselves as superior to everyone else.
In desperation, she finds solace with Brad (Patrick Wilson), a father who is similarly keen to rebel against the middle class stability he finds himself trapped within.
As the two get to know more about each other and their children become friends, they begin an affair that provides some form of escape from the stifled confines of their respective marriages.
Meanwhile, the town is having to contend with the presence of a convicted paedophile (played by Jackie Earle Haley) in their midst, who has returned from prison to live with his mother under the watchful gaze of a vigilante committee.
As dark as the subject matter sounds, Little Children is actually punctuated by moments of subtle humour that serve to ensure it never becomes dreary or over-bearing.
It’s incredibly well-written and doesn’t ever drag its feet, serving as both a fascinating character study and a tense suburban drama.
Viewers are never quite sure where the story will take them and are presented with a highly complex set of characters who are all prone to acts of selfishness and stupidity.
Winslet’s Sarah, for instance, isn’t a particularly good mother and often views her daughter as an inconvenience, yet somehow remains endearing. While Wilson is similarly prone to juvenile decision-making that works against an otherwise genial personality. Both roles are exquisitely performed.
But then Field allows both to grow as characters throughout the movie so that we can understand and even judge the choices they make.
Likewise, he keeps the exact details of Haley’s sex offender’s past deliberately under wraps, asking viewers to decide for themselves how much of a sinner he really is.
As a result, he’s prone to acts that are, by turns, disgusting and sympathetic but which serve to present the audience with a set of challenging and intriguing questions.
So much about Little Children is designed to question people’s perceptions of how they judge each other, as well as themselves. Yet crucially the director steers clear of any such judgments himself, allowing events to unfold for themselves.
He also thankfully avoids the temptation to drift into any heavy-handed tragedy or melodrama and maintains a vice-like grip on viewers’ attention as a result, earning both our respect and admiration in the process.
Viewers can’t fail to be impressed with what will surely be regarded as one of the finest films of the year.
Running time: 2hrs 16mins