Saturday, December 30, 2006

Little Children

The 2006 film catchup continues with this excellent film. Most reviewers have equated Little Children with films like American Beauty and The Ice Storm, and that's certainly a valid comparison, however, it's not like this is a ripoff of those films. There's room in cinematic suburbia for a number of different visions.

The film's trailer was one of the more striking I saw this year, using the sound of a train whistle and ticking clocks rather than typical musical score. Those motifs are repeated in the film's opening, creating a strong feeling of unease. These two sounds weren't arbitrarily chosen, the train and the clock are the critical symbols in the two main characters' lives.

The train is the vessel by which characters move from their suburban homes to their urban workplace. For Brad, the whistle mocks him, reminding him of his unemployment, his failure to become a typical suburban father. When he goes to take the bar exam, his wife drops him off at the train station, the typical gender roles reestablished, however, he quickly abandons the chance to pass the bar exam and gain societal status, preferring to continue his affair with Sarah, his escape from the pressures of his everyday life.

For Sarah, the clock is what gives her day structure. There's the 10:30 snacktime, and then the wait for her husband to return so she can go on her daily walk. She mocks the mothers who have their children on regimental snack schedules, but she herself is just as much a slave to routine. For her, life is all about waiting for brief moments of happiness. At first, it's just being alone, later it's abou passing the dull 48 hours of the weekend so she can return again to the pool and Brad.

The film uses a narrator, something that's frequently criticized in films. That's because the narrator is usually telling us what we already know, however, here I think it works because he tells us the characters' thoughts rather than their actions. So, when we hear that Sarah thinks of herself as an anthropologist, we're also aware that she is not as distanced as she appears to be. In a movie, you've got a bunch of tools available, and voiceover is one. If it can help the audience get something more out of the film, there's no reason not to use it. I love visual storytelling as much as anyone, but for conveying exposition, it's frequently easier to just say it right out than go through a clumsy dialogue scene to convey the same thing.

For Sarah, that anthropologist line is critical. The film is about her process of losing that distance and becoming just like those other suburban mothers, it's about accepting her lot in life. She's so frustrated by the mothers, and their refusal to see beyond the world that they live in. She is not quick to condemn Ronnie, and scoffs at the idea that he should be castrated while the others just nod along. When Brad arrives, he provides her with the chance to show her distance from them. She's willing to engage with him rather than just view him as a fantasy object.

However, as the film progresses, Brad becomes the exact same fantasy to Sarah that he is to the mothers. Only, she's actually with him rather than just viewing him from a distance. Brad is the escape from her boring life with her husband, and even though her relationship with him is an attempt to escape suburban monotony, it winds up locking her into the life inextricably. She falls into a routine because it means seeing him, and this once aggressive feminist is reduced to spying on his wife from her car. This scene feels a bit goofy, but that's exactly the point. She's ashamed to be doing it, but she can't stop herself, that's what her whole character arc is about, getting caught up in something she knows is stupid, and for a moment, believing it could lead to real change.

The book club scene is a bit on the nose, but sums up her arc well. Having the other woman call Bovary a slut was something I could definitely see happening, and Sarah's change in perspective on the book is a great indication of her changing perspective on life. She is no longer an academic, removed from her environment. She is Bovary, trapped in a world she can't stand, and tricking herself into believing in escape.

Brad's plight is a bit different. He is completely emasculated by his relationship with Kathy, perfectly summed up by the scene with the jester's hat in the beginning. He is raising his son, but Aaron still responds to his mother more. Brad has absolutely no power, and he longs for the freedom he had in his youth, a freedom exemplified by the skateboarders. Brad is still an arrested adolescent, the prom king quarterback of the football team.

What attracts him to Sarah is the fact that she needs him as much as he needs her. he doesn't get that from Kathy, who's utterly self sufficient, viewing him as a nanny, or even another child. Sarah has the same frustrations about life that he does, and they can escape together. This culminates in the scene after the football game, where they kiss and decide to run away together. Again, they seem more like teenagers than adults, seeking an escape from the parents who want to keep them apart. In that moment, they both believe that they can escape, but ultimately, we know that it's not going to happen.

After pledging to utterly reject their suburban world, they're both confronted with an event that makes them give up the dream of escape and commit fully to their role. For Sarah, that is the confrontation with Ronnie at the park. Whereas she once found the mothers' panic ridiculous, she now finds herself deeply scared. She does try to comfort him, but when Lucy goes missing, she hunts for her, full of fury. When she does find her, she shoves her into the carseat, no longer someone who just happens to have a kid, she becomes a mother there. By not putting her in the carseat, Sarah was valuing her own comfort over her child's safety. Now, she forgets about that and decides to go back home because it's what Lucy wants, abandoning her own dream.

Brad finally talks to the skateboarders and is given the opportunity to indulge in the ultimate youthful play, ditching his appointment to skateboard. For a moment, he finds the exact escape he was seeking, soaring through the air, he is young again. But, he crashes down to Earth, and, injured, he literally rejects the idea of leaving with Sarah by giving his note to one of the skateboarders. That dream is for a younger man, and he is now grown up.

The ending is sad in some respects, but realistic. Together, Brad and Sarah would have likely found the same problems they had with their respective spouses, it was the novelty that attracted them, their mutal imprisonment more powerful than anything inherent to themselves. The film is about the way they move from outsiders to insiders, and accept their roles within the community. Yes, they lose something of themselves in the process, but, it's the only viable option for their futures.

This is all paralleled by the story of Ronnie, who similarly struggles to find a place for himself in the community. He resists and continues to indulge his 'psychosexual disorder.' However, in the end, he also destroys that which separates him from the community and makes a bid to conform. Will they accept him after he's castrated himself? I doubt it, but I think they'll be less openly hostile.

The stuff with Ronnie frequently felt like a different movie. I read a couple of reviews which said that his story steals the movie from Brad and Sarah, I'd disagree. I think their stuff was fantastic, and his, while good, also felt a bit cliched. I don't think the film would be stronger if that plotline was cut out, but perhaps trimming it would have made it work better, as a comment on the main storyline rather than a subplot that distracts from the film's core.

The one misstep in the film was the Slutty Kay stuff. This sort of over the top comedy didn't mesh well with the more subtle humor of the rest of the film. I think doing something about the husband's internet porn addiction is a valid choice, but this was too broad.

Other than that, I was thoroughly caught up in the story this film was telling. The narration gave it a different feel than some similar films, and the acting throughout was top notch. The film barely expanded beyond New York, and that's unfortunate, it's certainly worth seeing.

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