Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Little Children (2006)

Little Children is abound with very bored and desperate housewives

Tales of suburbia have become all too familiar in the recent years. You know, the tales of housewives dying of boredom, slowly driven mad, or driven to escape by the moral sterility, stifling conformity, and puritan judgementality of their middle-class neighbours. I suppose these films have such a hold on the cultural consciousness of America, because this suburban film has taken over the articulation of urban horror, which modern horror movies have fail to express because that genre has become a parody of itself (is the Scary Movie series or the countless sequels to The Ring and The Grudge any scary?). That's not to say that audiences aren't tired of angsty suburban movies; I suspect that reason behind the success of Desperate Housewives is a sign that even the angsty suburban genre is moving towards self-parody and irrelevance.

While it's true that Little Children is a typical suburban "horror" film (Kate Winslet is a bored former-feminist graduate housewive falling into the arms of bored unwilling law school candidate househusband Patrick Wilson), Todd Field and Tom Perrotta believe they have found the secret to rejuvenating the genre, by creating a script that is completely unpredictable despite its familiar setting and characters. You notice almost immediately when the film begins of their intention: There is a voiceover narrator (voiced by Will Kymann) who confides in us like a David Attenborough of suburbia or a documentary narrator providing the inner thoughts and processes of the humans as if Little Children were the sequel to March of the Penguins. In other words, expect to be acquainted with the whimsical, unexpected, and unconventional inner life of Homo Suburbia, to flit from the inner life of one character to an almost unrelated character through the most tangential of coincidences, to bear witness to the strangest practices of the natives, and listen to their (reported by the narrator, of course) even stranger justifications and explanations of why they do what they do.

And so the most interesting characters in Little Children aren't really Kate Winslet or her neighbour Patrick Wilson (though their story is one of the two planks of this movie), but perhaps the mundane yet bizarre habits of the spouses who cause their alienated states. Similarly, the focus isn't so much on the stifling conformity of the gated community (although its pressures do bear down on and drive the two main storylines), but more on the curious rituals and games of membership and exclusion that everyone plays. And watching this, one gets the idea that the filmmakers are far less interested in provoking an instinctive horror of suburbia than in provoking audiences, suburbanites, and other filmmakers to relook at their surroundings. This playful provocation and frustration of expectations is no less than a challenge to audiences to look at movies with a new eye as well, of course. That the writers of Little Children aim for this is not incredible - every filmmaker hopes their film will make the cinema experience anew - and what is actually incredible is that they have succeeded.

The proof is in the second main storyline of this movie, where Jackie Earle Haley plays a former sex offender released on parole but shunned and castigated by the community. Yet from this rather trite starting point, the character mutates so quickly that who we know he is at the end of the movie is so far removed from what we the audience expected in the beginning. For the duration of this movie, Jackie Earle Haley plays a wide range of roles: from a victim of society, a dangerous criminal not in control of his manias, a dangerous criminal fully in control of his manias, a master manipulator to a very helpless and lost man - evoking the full gamut of emotions, anxieties, and sympathies in the audience. This performance, ever so convincing and intense despite its wide range, is a treat that must be savored and enjoyed.

Clearly, Little Children deserves its nominations for its screenplay and supporting actor, and is a movie that is greatly rewarding, if you have the patience for its long runtime.

First published at incinemas on 8 February 2007

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