Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Suffering Little Children

Little Children (2006) is the only film I can think of in which a pedophile is probably the most sympathetic adult character. Tom Perotta, who adapted his popular novel for the screen along with director Todd Field, is less concerned with the danger presented to children by the psychologically warped Ronnie McGorvey (an Oscar-nominated performance by Jackie Earle Haley) than by the self-absorbed parents who follow their own bliss in this whitebread suburban town. The film’s ending, from what I gather, is a major departure from Perotta’s novel, in which Ronnie’s obsession with kids leads to a  very different, though equally disturbing, climax.

 I’ve also heard that this is the rare film that is superior to its source material. I can’t speak to that, but I can see how Perotta’s novel about seven lost souls has been shaped and sharpened in order to zero in on a few really key relationships. The most vivid is that of Sarah (a rather bedraggled Kate Winslet) and Brad (a squeaky-clean Patrick Wilson). Sarah’s a desperate housewife and former self-proclaimed radical feminist who takes pride in keeping her distance from the other young moms in the local playground set. It doesn’t help that her husband, an older man who’s been married before, turns out to have an obsession with Internet porn. (A very tongue-in-cheek narrator shows us the outrageous moment when Sarah catches her spouse in flagrante with the on-screen Slutty Kay.) 

 Brad (nicknamed “the Prom King” by the playground moms) is restless in his role as househusband and aspiring lawyer, married to an ambitious maker of documentary films.  He’s happy enough pushing his little son on the swing-set, but only pretends to be studying for the upcoming bar exam. What he really seems to covet is physical thrills, of the sort he once felt as a college quarterback. Brad’s and Sarah’s spouses are far more deeply explored in Perotta’s novel, but on film the spotlight shines bright on the couple’s passionate extramarital affair, sparked by time spent together at the community swimming pool, and then consummated as their four-year-olds nap in another room.

 Played off against this wild and crazy coupling is the story of Ronnie McGorvey, newly released from prison following an episode in which he exposed himself to a local child. Now living in the neighborhood with his supportive, though slightly addled, mother, he wants only to be left in peace. But a self-righteous ex-cop leads the charge to hound Ronnie from town, even coming to his door late at night to harass him via loudspeaker, making sure Ronnie knows that he’s the neighborhood pariah and always will be.

 Of course no good can come of all this. It’s an unusual hallmark of this film that we understand the pain and frustration of the local residents at the same time that the narrator’s comic detachment moves the story along. I can only assume that the witty tone of the narrative comes direct from Perotta’s novel. It’s startling, at first, to hear so much detached narration setting the stage for the story we’re about to watch. It reminded me of a far different film with far different goals, Tony Richardson’s filmic adaptation of Fielding’s 18th century comic gem, Tom Jones. Later on, as this wry voice faded away, I began to miss it. But of course detached wit, going on at length, would overly divert us from the fundamentally serious tale we see unfolding on screen. Though modern life has its darkly comic side (Starbucks barristas! Online shopping sprees! Internet smut!), there’s nothing funny about the destruction of marriages and families.   


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