The expression “subtle as a brick” is something often used in criticism – often as a detraction toward a story that utilizes symbolism to an unbearably heavy-handed degree. Todd Field’s 2006 film Little Children is a pinnacle film to show anybody when it comes to films that are heavy-handed in their visual and plot-centric motifs. The main crux of the plot is akin to Madame Bovary, but the film insists on dedicating an entire book club scene to dialogue-driven exposition to the similarities between the novel and the character delivering her monologue. However, while Field and co-writer Tom Perrotta (who wrote the novel the film is based on) are obviously making a film that is borderline obnoxious in its maximalism, it’s the small little things throughout that has the viewer questioning how a film can actually approach subtlety within a style that is anything but.
Take, for example, a scene toward the end of Little Children, where our protagonist, Sarah (played by Kate Winslet) returns from a weekend getaway with her married lover (Patrick Wilson). She stands in the bathroom mirror, focusing on her face, while her daughter knocks on the bathroom door. She shoos her away. This is after a moment where, upon return home, she finds herself in a quick exchange with her daughter’s babysitter – a moment that is so ambiguous, at first, that many could read into it in an array of ways. It’s those things – and they’re all throughout the film – that balance out a film’s tone that is otherwise sarcastic, artificial, and subversive of clichés known within the hyper-critical deconstruction of stories circling around the hollow, hedonistic lives of American suburbia.
Little Children is, in a way, a sort of cheeky response to the success of Sam Mendes’ American Beauty. That film, commonly considered a contemporary classic, was also an exaggerated portrayal of the topic – and both films share the common connection that their male lead is incapable of stepping away from their high school machoism that defined them in the crucial transition from adolescent free-spiritedness and the “entrapment” of adulthood. American Beauty isn’t a subtle film, either, but it steps a little too far in its broad hyperbole to be taken with any kind of elucidation. The symbolism in Mendes’ film involves CGI of rose petals, a shot that frames its protagonist in a computer screen that looks like prison bars, and a character who inexplicably finds himself in the belief that his son is gay by way of conveniences that disclose any logical realization of what’s truly going on.
American Beauty doesn’t find itself ironic on the off-set; it takes itself very seriously (what in the fuck are we supposed to “look closer” at exactly?). It’s about exposing artificiality, but it also embraces the concept of its male lead as some kind of martyr worth praise for stepping away from his constructed commitments. There’s nothing less artificial about that. It finalizes itself on an existential note – already started from the film’s opening sequence, where our “hero” is narrating Holden Caulfield-style. But when the final scene comes, the viewer is pushed into questioning if screenwriter Alan Ball was being a little too insistent on connecting this entire trajectory of events with such sincerity. Kevin Spacey’s character finds himself reminiscing on life itself, but this following a film that is otherwise unrealistic (intentionally so), and doesn’t really earn such a universally bloated symphony. In fact, the way that his life comes to an end is done by a very dated – and, frankly, pretty homophobic – concept that derails what has already been a bunch of scattered and unconnected subplots surrounding an “unhappy”, yet privileged, suburban family. American Beauty is an example of a terrible screenplay (which originally bookended with – get this – courtroom sequences) that happened to have a competent director and an ensemble of actors who somehow made their caricatures work.
Little Children’s own title is a blunt piece of symbolism – basically Creative Writing 101 in the same way that American Beauty is. The latter, being a rose that rots in the center, is pretty on-the-nose, if passable – while Field’s film is forcing the audience to look at its adult characters as, essentially, little children themselves. It’s eye-rolling on paper, but it’s the delivery of both films that makes those things work – even though American Beauty doesn’t dare stick with its ironic edge, but instead embraces and humanizes our immature white male hero while demonizing everyone else. Little Children doesn’t dare do such a thing. From the first scene, to the last, every single character is criticized, scrutinized, and made fun of – and the film’s ending is so forced and so laughable, that it’s impossible not to see the irony laced with such convenient and melodramatic finalities for them all.
The biggest directorial choice that marks Little Children’s irony – and overall sarcasm – is the use of its narration. The voice chosen is Will Lyman, who narrates PBS’ Frontline. Jennifer Connelly’s character – married to Wilson’s – is insinuated to be a documentarian for the show. That’s a development that legitimizes its use by way of connecting it the actual narrative, but it’s also additional irony in the way of use. Often, he narrates exactly what’s on screen – almost patronizing the viewer; but it’s frequently so tongue-in-cheek that the redundancy reaches a bit of poignancy in many moments. It treats the one-dimensional characters as one-dimensional; as a voyeur, almost like one who is analyzing animals in a nature documentary – and the introduction of the narration in the first scene immediately parallels that immediately. But, while being blunt and without any ambiguity in that aspect, it opens up a plethora of things to ponder: like, why does Sarah, our “heroine”, feel like she’s above the other suburban housewives in the park? Maybe, it’s because she knows that, no matter how much she’s unhappy or incapable of remembering to pack her daughter’s lunch – and no matter her Master’s degree she doesn’t put into use – she’s as self-absorbed, as ignorant to her privilege, and as selfish as anybody else she criticizes.
While Lyman scrutinizes the characters like he’s aware it’s all just a piece of fiction, every character within the film is mostly scrutinizing or studying others. Sarah studies the other moms. Her husband studies a porn subject that he can’t have physically. Brad (Wilson) studies local teens who are skateboarding in the park. His wife (Connelly) studies subjects for a living (and eventually her own husband). The entire community, including a former police officer (Noah Emmerich), studies and criticizes the local child predator (Jackie Earle Haley), while the sex offender himself is living with his psychosexual disorder in which he tries, for his elderly mother (Phyllis Somerville), to fix himself – but then plays voyeur to his desires in a scene where he scubas in a swimming pool full of children. Everyone seems to rely on criticizing one another, and Field seems to be making that his primary focus in that nobody is unscathed from criticism. The soccer moms are just as critical toward Sarah as she is to them.
Field and Perrotta treat all of this with such a dry sense of humor. The aforementioned swimming pool scene culminates in children running from the scene like they’re in a Jaws sequel, for example. There’s also a moment where Sarah and Brad first give into their sexual desire for one another, and a washing machine buzzes as they’re boning on top of the equipment. An entire sequence is dedicated to Connelly’s character catching onto sexual tension; and the scene, alone, illustrates the entire tone of the film. She suspects sexual tension between her husband and Sarah, Lyman’s narration kicks in saying “sexual tension is an elusive thing, but she had pretty good radar for it” while Connelly is properly giving us that within her performance. She proceeds to drop her fork on the ground to “catch them playing footsie”, but stays under the table for a long time. Nobody above, eating, finds it odd. It’s because that’s the humor of the film, in itself. The artificiality. It isn’t just about playing scrutiny to certain traits of American suburbia (“monogamy is what makes you unhappy”), but it’s these character dwelling in a world that is completely, thoroughly, its own brand of ironic humor – and unlike American Beauty, the sincerity of the subtext branches from that humor instead of clashing with it – because not a single moment in Little Children is akin to any sort of attempted realism; no matter how authentic the cast of actors make them feel with alongside their fitting comedic timing.
Which blows the mind with the critical reception of the film upon its 2006 release – as the film was read by many critics as being a full-fledged drama. Many supporters and detractors, in equal measure, took the film as if it were entirely straight-faced, and that could definitely be a problem with interpreting its tone. There’s an entire moment where Brad relives his high school glory days with a football game among other adults in the community – and its played in heightened (and downright silly) slow motion straight out of Varsity Blues. Lyman’s narration is even present. It’s a thoroughly stupid scene, but after its all over, there’s one figure in the bleachers cheering him on. Dramatically, it’s too forced in symbolism. Ironically and humorously (with a touch of melodrama), it’s the film’s most frightening moment – even moreso than a sex offender masturbating to a complete stranger.
Field’s film is a departure from his debut – where In the Bedroom was a bleak drama that didn’t take any kind of sarcastic glee in its characters’ tragedy. Little Children would falter if it took itself as serious, because the characters aren’t really facing any sort of tragedy. They’re privileged white people who want to be young again, who want to be spontaneous, and who don’t think of the negative reactions that come from their actions. The film’s final few minutes don’t wrap everything up in some happy ending. Just because the affair has stopped, it doesn’t mean anything has changed. It doesn’t mean Sarah is happy. It doesn’t mean Sarah will learn to become more aware of her daughter’s well-being (there’s a scene where she’s so distracted, she doesn’t realize her toddler is watching a – get this – PBS documentary). It doesn’t mean Brad will stop obsessing over sex and his heyday of ego-boosting as a praised teenager. It doesn’t mean his wife is going to have peace (how is he going to explain the skateboard incident?) There’s nothing heroic about the police officer’s actions – because it’s resolutely selfish why he helps in the first place. There’s nothing happy about these resolutions. They’re ridiculous, short-sighted, and hyperbolic – but Field and Perrotta aren’t making martyrs. These people are unhappy – and it’s the fault of their own narcissistic actions. The narrator’s tone gives that away from the get-go. Now scrutinize.