Writer/director Todd Field follows up his Academy Award nominated 2001 film In the Bedroom with a much more accessible entry. Little Children is magnetic, a movie that manages to be artistic and entertaining all at once. It's part drama, part satire, and determined to have an impact.
The film strikes an incredibly strange balance between the serious and the surreal, by taking the familiar and by now cinematically worn out subject of parents in unhappy marriages and marrying it with a wry narration played is if it were lifted from an episode of "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom". The narrator serves as a warm and sometimes funny guide through the lives of Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) and Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), two stay-at-home parents locked into an empty and unsatisfying routine of childcare in a haunting, tree-lined suburbia while their spouses live more interesting lives out in the work force.
We meet Sarah in a park where she sits apart from the other nattering, empty-headed mothers and tells herself that she's not one of them. Little Children's view of full-time child-rearing is a bleak one. For an ambitious and intelligent woman it's almost a death sentence, or at the very least a big give-up. Sarah loves her daughter, but she also loved having a life. Now her life is her daughter and whoever or whatever Sarah once was is gone, replaced by the word "mother". The real Sarah, long dead and buried by a pregnancy, is reawakened when she meets Brad.
Brad is the sexy, stay-at-home father from down the street, and the fantasy of the other mothers in Sarah's park. She meets him on a bet, and finds in Brad the intelligent, dissatisfied companion missing amongst the other blissfully dull, easily satisfied soccer moms. As these things often do, their relationship boils and builds into something torrid, and Sarah is left struggling to live a private life as a mother, and a private, socially unacceptable life where she's truly alive.
Little Children works brilliantly as a mesmerizing character study about the way we judge others and ourselves, but it nearly loses itself once Field starts stirring in a sidebar subplot about a recently paroled pedophile living in the neighborhood. Somehow though, Field connects everything together and the strangely sad, sometimes disturbing story of Ronald James McGovery's (Jackie Earl Haley) re-assimilation back into a fearful, judgmental society melds perfectly into the primary tale of Sarah and Brad's desperate suburban angst.
The point here for Field isn't to demonstrate some urbane superiority over the suburban milk and cookies set, but rather to provide a frank examination of what's under that sticky, jam-encrusted surface. Little Children examines the sacrifices that must be made for parenthood and picket-fence living, and holds them up to the harsh light of reality. It doesn't judge, instead it seems to be asking us not to judge and see parents for what they are: Living, breathing, emotional beings with unfulfilled hopes, dreams and aspirations beyond whether or not to give their kid juice with breakfast.
There are lessons to be learned in Todd Field's lush and beautiful film, and they're right there out in the open. Unlike other films of its genre, it never talks down to its audience or layers its theme under a thick viscous of snobby, arthouse imagery. Little Children mixes plain authenticity with a sharp wit for a completely unique, quirky take on parenting and suburbia.