Saturday, December 30, 2006

Little Children

The happy ending version of this movie is Little Miss Sunshine (see the entry just below this). That's not the ending we get here.

Little Children the movie does a wonderful job of representing the undertow of confusion and stuckness that threatens to pull people under. It cuts among interlocking stories that each center on someone who is about to dive down beneath their established life, and for entirely normal, believable reasons. 45 minutes into the film, all the main characters have thrown themselves into the vortex, creating the uneasy fear one feels for people who are about to risk everything they've deliberately built up in order to end a sense of suffocation that is much less concrete than the secure surface of their lives, but somehow more real. This is strong suspense film about that crucial question of whether or not our own happy lives actually make us feel alive.

The movie covers an updated version of Cheever territory - the despair beneath the comforts of American suburbia. "Little Children" is better than "American Beauty" and "The Ice Storm," and is intelligent about the effects of thwarted desire in the way of Todd Haynes's "Safe." It has the eerie disorientation of "The Swimmerj" It's particularly shrewd about the original source of romantic yearning itself. The film's real "LIttle Children" are the parents from two different families who fall in love with each other. They are the stay-at-home Mom and the Mr. Mom who re-marry each other informally at the neighborhood pool where they spend every summer day taking care of their adorable kids. Together they are as bland as they are in their actual marriage. Their interest in each other doesn't unearth some suppressed power or depth in themselves, which is always the assumption behind the affair. It reflects their mutual wish to recapture the unrestricted experience they associate with childhood - no bar exams, no dissertations to finish, no spouses with budgets or habits of Internet wankfests at the work computer. You can see the affair coming with the first encounter between these two fair-haired parents who are the bored and aimless and also subordinate to their focused and competent spouses in each of their marriages. Unlike the breadwinners, these two are still looking for what they want to do in life. When they seem to find that thing in their daily poolside parenting and then later in their daily sex, they are put by the film into strict parallel with their preschool kids sharing their afternoon naps. It's a nice dream - play and sleep, play and sleep, all feeling unforced and unchangingly attractive, every day happily the same. As if.

The other true thing about the movie is that Sarah and Brad (Winsett and Wilson) resolve to run off together and then chicken out and chicken out accidentally-on-purpose, in ways that allow them to go "home" to their focused, successful spouses who are capable of taking care of them, and yet go home without acknowledging to themselves that this is what they really want. Sarah concocts a panic attack when her child wanders out of her sight for five minutes in the nighttime park where she had gone to meet Brad. Brad interrupts his trip to destiny to fulfill his wannabe skateboarder dreams, injuring his beautiful body and giving himself the perfect excuse never to try anything again. Lots and lots of us finally stand up for ourselves only to take this kind of dive right away, as soon as we decently can. One reason is that we stood up for the wrong thing, even though it took us forever to do so.

So can the problems be overlooked? Well let's inventory them. The movie polarizes straight and sensitive suburbia in a phony way. The other moms are stereotypes of sexual repression, living on the edge of hysteria. When Brad and Sarah first kiss in front of them (on a jokey dare from Sarah), the moms grab up their kids and flee just as the neighborhood moms do later at the pool when the registered sex offender is found swimming around with a mask and snorkel. The same false polarity infects the original marriages: the dominant spouses are so disconnected from their partners that you wonder how they could have been married for even a few weeks: why would a phony, money-grubbing "brander" ever have married a failed English lit PhD student, or vice versa, and why would a smart documentary maker ever marry the pretty but super-dull Brad, whose soul can be filled through the camaraderie of night-league football? In the film's clunkiest moment, Ronnie, the sex offender, has a date with an attractive, clinically-depressed thirtysomething (played well by Jane Adams), bonds with her in a sympathetic, fraternal way, and then as she's praising their conversation in the car starts to jerk off and threaten her like a possessed maniac. The moment destroys the analogy between criminalized and "normal" perversion that had helped to humanize Ronnie (his mother is the film's strongest single character, played brilliantly by Phyllis Somerville). His auto-mutilation at the end just reproduces the suburban sexual hysteria the film supposedly critiques. Equally implausible is that his tormentor, the other unloved man, ex-cop and night-league loser Larry, turns into his rescuer: this is the kind of instant redemption that the basic intelligence of this film would rule out. The problem is the film undermines the quasi-heroic struggles of
their flawed main characters - Ronnie, Brad, and Sarah - so that their weak and pathetic ends make the earlier dramas seem unreal in retrospect. If they fold THIS easily, then what were we watching the previous two hours.

The men in this film - ouch. They are useless and dangerous by turns. The women are suffocated and unhappy. The American middle-class comes off badly - spoiled, unfocused, and without the strength to save itself or anybody else. We are, the movie says, the little children of world.

1 comment:

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