January 1, 2014

Little Children (2006)

Gritty, a term that can be defined as "harsh, coarse, rough and unrefined" usually pertains to aggressive reboots of formerly soft-touch movie franchises or showing the lower class depths of society that the average middle-age, well-off white moviegoer would never see in real life. But, despite this more common view of a 'gritty' film, there are fly-on-the-wall films that show the gritty nature of upper-class white society.

Yes, it makes it harder to feel bad for rich folks who seemingly have everything at their whim and whose problems can, on the surface, be relegated away from 'life or death' and put under the category of 'frivilous' or 'first world problems' but ... it is still a society. Each and every society, regardless of the economy that runs it, comes with expectations, acceptable behaviors and judgements.

Little Children, one of New Line Cinema's prestige (and Oscar bait) films of 2006, is a gritty film, without doubt. It shows humanity, even in an economically comfortable realm, at its most raw. Though the film does follow a somewhat typical plot arc, it accomplishes its goal of showing them as realistically as possible.

Even though the two main stars of the film are the always gorgeous Kate Winslet (playing Sarah) and an impossibly muscular Patrick Wilson (playing Brad), when the two engage each other with dialogue, it comes across as unscripted and with a prose similar to conversation and not pitch-perfect filmspeak. When the two characters have sex, it is shown as raw and as unflattering as possible ... even uncomfortable ... kind of like real sex can be (unless you are used to having soaring film scores and perfect lighting accompany every romp in the hay). In essence, and this goes to the writing and the acting, you can see a 'real' world where Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson would be walking around your neighborhood and it wouldn't seem out of place.

The realism depicted in the film goes deeper than just normalizing gorgeous celebrities ... it shows you the hidden dimensions of the perceivably perfect house surrounded by a white picket fence. In one sequence, Sarah's husband Richard's history of burgeoning porn addiction is interspersed with quick cuts to what his two male coworkers do behind closed doors. One is a transvestite and the other has anonymous gay sex at truck stops. This takes up literally six seconds of film and we do see the coworkers again in normal situations ... but nothing is said about it when they are seen again. It stands to reason, from the film's perspective, that everyone, even average joes working office jobs, have secret lives hidden from accepted society and that, going against the tropes of drama, it really hurts no one and most people don't know about it.

Hence Richard's porn addiction itself: only he and his wife know about it. Everyone else, with all their secrets inside, go about daily life as if nothing is different and everything is okay. Shortly after Sarah discovers her husband's rather ... unique ... porn addicting routine, she privately, in the comforts of her own home, berates him and feels betrayed. But, when invited to a dinner party with friends, shows up and plays the part of happy wife. Richard is seen as a well-off, partially funny but boring husband and no one knows any different.

Details such as Richard's life is such a small piece of the overall film (Richard is really only on screen for about ten minutes) but moments like it exist throughout the entire film. Sarah is shown as a tireless mother who goes above and beyond ... but behind closed doors isn't exactly mom of the year. Brad is seen as the neighborhood hunk who is a great father. But behind closed doors, his wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) sees him as a man-child (and he sort of is); his young son doesn't even see him as a parent either, just more a babysitter. Brad's aggressive ex-cop friend Larry seems like a typical tough-guy who just wants to party with the boys ... but when no one is looking he is lonely, sad and angry and doesn't know how to express those feelings. These details continue throughout Little Children and make up one of its two part core.

The second part is the title itself: little children. When you see the more domestic side of this film (it is all about people with children), your first thought may be that the film shows how children change adult lives. This is true in a very small way ... every character is undoubtedly changed and feels pressure from having children. However, the real message of the film is how innocent children are and how adults, through their own struggles of growing up and evolving, change children's lives (the old plot switcheroo).

The little children actors themselves really play no part in this film but to serve as plot devices. In the end, it is the adults who find themselves grasping with accepting an innocent (and thus, somewhat, childish) dreamlike view of their lives or accepting the harsh but rewarding values of the lives they now have.

Sarah has a doctorate in literature but went the typical housewife route, staying home with her daughter. She has one room to herself where her ambitions and dreams come out but is surrounded by a life she doesn't want ... and sometimes that comes out against her daughter. Brad keeps failing the bar exam because instead of studying he watches kids skateboard ... dreaming he could be free enough to just skate the night away. He also joins a late night football team and just wishes his wife could appreciate his now-abandoned skills as a former college QB (something he gave up to have a family).

When Sarah and Brad meet, it is a chance for them to abandon the responsibilities they are already dying to skip out on and live a fantasy life. They begin an affair ... one that, on the surface, seems justified as both characters seem put out by their significant others or their judgemental neighbors. However, what seems like a secret act of necessary rebellion turns into something too fantastical.

In one very telling scene towards the end, Brad finally makes a heroic sports play and Sarah shows up and cheers her head off. Brad is so pleased someone appreciated his play that the two, in typical heart-on-sleeve high school fashion, make out on the field and talk about running away together.

At that moment, as a viewer, you realize how stupid the whole affair is. Sarah has left her daughter with a porn addicted father to go watch her lover play football. He, in turn, has abandoned his studies and his wife and son at home to play football and drink beer with his friends. Both Sarah and Brad are embracing the emotional attention they need but ignoring the grander scheme of caring for their loved ones in lives they chose to live.

But Sarah and Brad is only two thirds of the whole story. We haven't even discussed Jackie Earle Haley's Oscar nominated performance as sex offender Ronnie? A sex offender in a suburban affair drama you say? Yes, in pseudo-pre-Babel fashion, Little Children continues its themes of how adults affect children by putting Sarah and Brad's world in chaos by having a convicted sex offender return to his old neighborhood to live with his elderly mother.

As Sarah, Brad and the rest of the community try to determine if their children are in danger from Ronnie, Ronnie himself has to deal with his sexual urges in a neighborhood surrounded by children while also dealing with his well-intentioned (and well liked) mother who sees herself as a failure in some regards for her son's behavior but also sees her son's condition in shades of grey: a good person who made a terrible mistake.

And the film treats Ronnie much the way his mother sees him: a flawed individual who does want to make his mother happy and does want to be normal despite urges and psychological issues that make normal impossible. And even if he could be normal again, Ronnie is surrounded by people who judge him entirely on his actions. But remember how this story is told: people have a life inside and outside their homes. Ronnie may be deeper and more sympathetic inside his home, but to the outside world he is just an evil, disgusting person.

Ronnie's story and Sarah/Brad's story doesn't exactly meet up as you'd expect from a story with multiple story lines. Instead, we are kind of getting a fly-on-the-wall perspective of a neighborhood in turmoil: people miserable on the inside trying to live up to expectations on the outside and failing despite their best efforts (Brad's football buddies, as an example, live in a very man-like world where you are expected to be tough and unfeeling; director/writer Todd Field plays these scenes like parody, just to drive home the point that sometimes being a man's man can be ridiculous).

The ending is polarizing, I'd imagine. You either see it as too open-ended or, if we are going to embrace the film's themes, as perfect (since life is never open-ended and is on-going until death). In the end, all three main characters (Sarah, Brad, Ronnie) make rash decisions but have someone there, in Ronnie's case, someone unexpected, to help pick up the pieces.

This is an uncomfortable but thought-provoking film that rewards you for your patience. The film appears, at first, to meander around subplots. Plus, some of the moral arguments of the film can be a bit too obvious (Sarah joins a book club and defends the heroine of Madame Bovary much to the contempt of some other members). But you'd be hard pressed to find a film so dedicated to being as close to a documentary as possible and showing the hidden (if not darker) side to the 'perfect' environment many Americans aspire to.

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