MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Little Children Movie Review

It is hard to figure out where to start discussing Little Children.

It is easy enough to say that it is the best American film of 2006 to date, since it is.

To say that this film is one of the great sophomore efforts of all time (by director/co-writer Todd Field) is no overstatement. And to write that Tom Perrotta is fortunate that this only the second film made from one of his books, since seven years after Election this is one of the few films worthy of being a successor to that unexpected achievement, would be fair, but too easy.

One could easily assert that Little Children is the film that Ang Lee and Alan Ball and Robert Redford and Paul Thomas Anderson and even Woody Allen have been trying to make for a long time. (Allen had the most success with the magnificent Crimes & Misdemeanors.) Others, like Alejandro Inarritu and Steven Soderbergh and Alexander Payne and Cameron Crowe and Jim Brooks and the Coen Brothers are working on similar canvases, but are too interested in entertaining to go somewhere quite this dry and relentless (though they often come close and achieve greatness on different levels). I love me some Malick, but he wants to let the wind blow through our hair and to allow us to reflect on ourselves even as we watch his movies. In England & Ireland, Jim Sheridan and Alan Parker and Neil Jordan and Mike Leigh have gone here and have probably come closer to this work in defining their cultures than American filmmakers previously have. But the one filmmaker whose voice is clear and clean in Little Children, aside from Todd Field, is Stanley Kubrick’s. This is not an imitation (in spite of some very specific steals), but Field’s breathed in and assimilated extension of The Master’s Voice.

But I still haven’t told you much about the movie.

As much as I want to offer an easy description of the film, it’s not a possibility. Confirming that is New Line’s terrific, but narrow, trailer for the movie. They decided, understandably, to focus on “The Affair” in the film. But man, I am here to tell you… it’s just the appetizer.

I keep finding myself singing Pete Seeger’s “Little Boxes,” currently enjoying renewed fame as the theme song of Showtime’s first great non-niche series, Weeds, to myself when I think of this film…

“Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes, little boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.

There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.”

There is something about the light heart behind that song and the simple understanding of human nature that connects to the film for me (much more than the TV series, actually). We are not all the same. And none of us is all that different. We are all made of the same ticky-tacky.

In Little Children’s case, “we” are stay-at-home mothers and stay-at-home-fathers and working moms and working dads and convicted sex offenders and the mothers of convicted sex offenders and cops and the handicapped and the emotionally handicapped and neighbors and of course, lots of little children of many different ages.

We are all so unique. We are all so different. Our decision-making is so inevitably passionate and so inevitably rational.

This is the remarkable power of Little Children. And, make no mistake, it will take a lot of people more than a moment to get used to that power.

The film is very, very funny, but audiences are afraid to laugh at a lot of the humor. After all, how funny are cheating and perversion and mean-spiritedness and outright stupidity? Very funny. But it’s a Kubrickian humor… tough and more than a little shocking.

One of the devices is a rather unexpected voiceover that is at first discomfiting, but which clarifies its value as it continues. (The familiar voice is Will Lyman, who does the voiceovers for Frontline on PBS… which, not so coincidentally, is the network the film’s Kathy makes docs for.) But Todd Field keeps the voiceover (which is almost all directly out of the Perrotta book) within its own realm. It has a sense of humor, but it never falls into comedy.

The most talked about element of the film will be the convicted sex offender with a proclivity for little children. But anyone who would call it “that child molester movie” would be simplifying beyond reason. The character, played by Jackie Earle Haley, comes home to his mother, played by the amazing Phyllis Somerville. (She should be Oscar bait. Breathtaking work.) And this character is so complex and real that it really stands up there with some of the greats. This man knows what he is and he knows what he isn’t. And he struggles. And his mother struggles. And as tough as it is to watch at times without wincing, its truth is profound.

Winslet rarely misses. And her turn here is layered in ways you can’t imagine even as you watch it. She plays a character who thinks she knows her parameters… but until they are challenged, she doesn’t. This probably should be her Oscar winner.

Patrick Wilson is surprisingly right in his role. Some have suggested that he is a little too much the character… a little too easy to understand. But I think it is daring to be that open.

And the most underappreciated performance in those three fronting leads will surely be Jennifer Connelly’s. But it really is one of her best ever. She plays The Perfect Woman. But as we all know, no one really is perfect. And while we never get too much range from the character, Connelly breathes her in a daring and unselfish way that I really admired. It’s one of those roles that feels so real that people won’t realize how structured a performance it is.

Todd Field has made a big step as a director here. He has taken his In The Bedroom skills and his passion for Kubrick and added his own twists of style and skill. There isn’t a shot in the movie that feels wrong. Whether it’s a table scene with four characters who are each in a completely different place emotionally or a scene underwater meant to force/allow us to see through the eyes of a sex offender or a satirical take on football, Field uses the whole toolbox with assurance and detail. And any time you get the feeling that maybe he got the wrong performance out of someone, the reason why it is perfection is right around the corner.

Little Children is the first American masterpiece of 2006. We’ll be chewing on this one for a long time to come.

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Poland

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin