Combing the Suburbs for Content

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The New York Sun

“Little Children,” Todd Field’s adaptation of Tom Perotta’s novel of the same name, continues the cinematic theory that the happy façades of suburban life only work to hide the ugly truth bubbling just beneath the surface. Much like “American Beauty” or “Desperate Housewives,” the film is convinced that not only does a white picket fence not buy happiness, but more likely leads to a life of disaffection and impropriety.

Despite the fascination of cinematographers with unearthing what lies beneath suburban life, people with manicured lawns and Tudor homes who have not noticed that their lives are soulless and hollow need not worry too much. Things don’t seem to get out of control in the suburbs until the harrowing music rolls in and a faceless narrator begins to endow every minuscule action with implications of foreshadowing.

The narrator here, voiced by Will Lyman, has homed in on the town of East Wyndham, where two overeducated stay-at-home parents find themselves cheating on their spouses with each other. Brad (Patrick Wilson) and Sarah (Kate Winslet), desperate though they are, are the most sympathetic characters in the film — followed closely by convicted pedophile Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley).


But all of them have found destructive ways to pass off their insecurities. Richard (Greg Edelman) avoids his demanding wife, Sarah, by way of a computer screen that makes no demands of him. Sarah circumvents this rejection by finding Brad, a man who makes her feel beautiful. And while Brad’s wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), takes her affection from her husband and puts it toward their child, Brad has found, in Sarah, someone who doesn’t care how much money he makes.

Similarly, former policeman Larry (Noah Emmerich) channels his rejection from the police force into an aggressive terror campaign targeted against Ronnie, a man caught exposing himself to minors who has moved into the neighborhood. Ronnie is portrayed as someone helpless to defend himself against a town of angry moralizers, but as soon as he finds someone weaker than himself, he takes the role of aggressor.

The film most closely follows the courtship of Brad and Sarah, and shows how destructive the “me first” approach of single urban life can be to a family.


Early on, when it becomes clear that Richard has a problem with porn, the film lays out its premise. As Richard hides from his work and familial obligations to indulge his growing fascination with an online porn star, that pesky omniscient narrator chimes in: “‘We want what we want,’ Richard thought, ‘and there’s nothing we can do about it.'”

And so the characters blindly chase after their prurient desires. Richard’s rejection of Sarah spurs her to indulge her own wishes. She befriends stay-at-home dad Brad, whose wife does not understand her husband’s inability to pass the bar exam and provide for their family.

The acting and cinematography are exquisite here, but it just doesn’t come together. Mr. Wilson doesn’t have much to work with, but manages to make Brad an often endearing if, frustrated, character. And aside from their similar aesthetic appeal, there is no insight given to the impetus for his marriage to Ms. Connelly’s character. As Sarah, Ms. Winslet gives a nuanced performance that begins to anchor the action, but her complete lack of affection for her husband and child leaves a hollow center in the final product.


Aside from the development of Mr. Haley’s character, who is out of place in the neighborhood and trying to figure out what his future holds, the remaining characters are simply takes on different stereoptypes. Mr. Edelman’s Richard comes direct from the “bad husband” archetype, Ms. Connelly is mostly used as eye candy, and Mary B. McCann, as the lead evil suburban mom, uses up the audience’s tolerance for her the first time she opens her mouth.

That said, Mr. Field does make the film look good, imbuing many individual shots with gorgeous examples of the beauty of the actors and their surroundings.The streets and homes on view look like the kind of places that inspire people to move out to the suburbs.

“Little Children” underlines how depressing it can be to watch individuals act according to their basest instincts. But while the film makes some interesting points, much of the action has been done before in more nuanced ways. Most of the humor is predictably made at the expense of the rituals of young suburban life without a better alternative to their choices on offer.It all seems remarkably hollow, especially considering how damaging the selfish assumption of the main characters can be to those relegated to the background of this film: the little children.Though they are more props for the storyline than active participants, they are a constant reminder of all their parents are so flippantly willing to throw away.

The New York Sun

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