In Todd Field’s Little Children (2006), a film adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel by the same name, Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson star as an adulteress couple in an upper-class suburb. It is summer, the temperature unbearably hot, and in the background there is the faint sound of a train siren. The movie meanders at a slow pace, and yet it is hypnotizing. I felt a bit voyeuristic watching these characters, perhaps the way a person feels when slowing down to look at a car wreck at the side of a road.
Winslet plays Sarah Pierce, who is unhappily married and a reluctant stay-at-home mother. She made the decision to give up her academic career because she thought it was expected of her. Her daughter seems a nuisance, and she watches the clock for the time her husband will be home so she can be released from her duties. In a difficult scene to watch, her daughter, who she describes as an “unknowable little person,” knocks on the bathroom door eager to give her mother a gift she has made. Sarah ignores her, savouring a few moments alone while remembering the touch of her lover. Naked in front of the mirror, she seems momentarily happy, her joy reborn. The temporary, if misguided, happiness that emerges in not from the new self that is “mother,” but from reawakening the buried sexual self before motherhood. This film is brutal in its unflinching portrayal of maternal ambivalence.
Sarah’s lover, Brad, nicknamed “the Prom King” by the other mothers, is also dissatisfied in his marriage. He feels emasculated, being a househusband to his intelligent and sexy wife Kate, played by Jennifer Connelly. Kate controls everything from when they have sex to how the money in the household is spent. Brad, a law student, tells his wife he is studying for the bar (which he has failed twice), but instead spends his afternoons with Sarah. They meet at the public pool, using their children’s play dates to further develop their intimacy. It doesn’t take long before they are embroiled in lies. In Little Children, there is no doubt that the children referred to in the title are not the cherubic youngsters that go swimming in the community pool. It is the adults that refuse to grow up, and yet the movie does not preach or judge, but portrays their complexity with sympathy.
This movie is about image — how we perceive ourselves and how we judge others. Sarah is not a good mother, and yet I’m sure most can identify with the feelings of boredom and resentment she sometimes feels. But are we willing to talk honestly about our personal shortcomings, or are we going to uphold the façade of an ideal? Sarah meets many people who attempt to mask their own imperfections through insidious means, usually by shifting attention onto others’ faults. There is the perfect mother who judges her for forgetting to pack snacks, the perfect wife, who schedules sex with her husband and has dinner on the table by six, and the perfect neighbour who looks down on Sarah’s unhappiness and failed marriage as pathetic.
In a rather unusual side plot, Ronnie James McGorvey, played by Jackie Earl Haley, has been recently paroled from jail after exposing himself to a child. He moves in with his mother and the local community reacts by forming a society to keep tabs on him. The themes all converge around this strangely sympathetic yet creepy figure. How do we label people: whore, failure, outcast? How do we judge ourselves? Is forgiveness and redemption possible? The movie builds to a climatic finish, and the crash that has been so heavily foreshadowed throughout the movie comes to its dramatic conclusion. Its gradual buildup accelerates quickly at the end, thrusting their seemingly unrelated lives into focus. No one can escape from society’s bright glare. And the consequences are both disturbing and unexpected.