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KFF: Little Children

The Kilgore Film Festival’s 3rd film, Little Children, is probably the most graphically explicit film I have seen at a KFF, but it is also easily among the most excellent. What an intensely powerful and disturbing film this is; how richly-layered with meaning and metaphor. A former professor of mine would call it “quite a ride:” smartly-written, well-acted, beautifully-shot and, of course, featuring the music of perhaps my favorite big-screen composer, Thomas Newman.

The composer is not the only thing Little Children shares with American Beauty, another excellent film that takes a long, hard look at “lives of quiet desperation” in modern suburbia. Little Children lacks American Beauty‘s razor-sharp wit and glib cynicism, but it is an ambitious, serious-minded effort with more characters and fewer caricatures.

Sarah (Kate Winslet) has given up her pursuit of a PhD in English to raise her difficult 3-year old, Lucy (Sadie Goldstein), but doesn’t really seem to know why. She doesn’t fit in with the other mothers, whose conventional lives revolve around their children and their gossip. Her marriage is almost non-existent. Her husband, Richard, has less than 5 minutes of screen-time, just long enough to establish his infatuation with an internet porn star. There is nothing between them, and it is hard to imagine that there ever was.

Brad (Patrick Wilson) is a self-confessed failure. He is a stay-at-home dad who has failed the bar exam twice and is working hard on failing it a third time. His wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) is a successful professional (she makes PBS documentaries) with a tight grip on the family purse strings. She is the responsible one, which means she gives the orders. She dotes on their son Aaron to an almost unhealthy degree. Aaron spends most nights in his parent’s bed, which has put rather a strain on their love life.

Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley) is a pedophile who has served time for indecent exposure and is now out of prison and living in a quiet neighborhood with his mother. However, the local residents for blocks in every direction are frightened and outraged by the presence of a pervert in their midst. Ronnie is a creepy, repellent character, but he is also a human being (a fact which only his mother seems to recognize).

Larry (Noah Emmerich), an ex-cop with anger management issues and a blot on his past that he desperately wants to redeem, has started a “Committee of Concerned Parents” which plasters every available surface with pictures of the sex offender. Larry himself has taken charge of the late-night hazing sessions, parking his van outside Ronnie’s house, blowing the horn, screaming threats and insults and covering the sidewalk and door with graffiti and fliers. Ronnie seems to expect this sort of behavior, perhaps he even think he deserves it. His mother does not accept the persecution so passively.

We suspect that Ronnie engenders such intense hatred not just because he represents such a visible threat to “the children,” but because he is an even more potent threat to the carefully-maintained illusion of propriety and decency that enables his neighbors to live near each other. Behind closed doors these people are porn addicts, adulterers and transvestites, but even the existence of these vices cannot be acknowledged in the open.

At the first hint of sexual sin, the outraged cries fly in from all sides. Those who scream the loudest are the ones who have something to prove, not only to their friends and families, but to themselves: Look, everyone. I am a good, upstanding member of our community. This is most apparent of all in Larry’s bullying of Ronnie, and it comes as no great surprise when Ronnie’s mother shuts Larry up by throwing his own personal shame in his face.

Similarly, when Sarah jokingly allows Brad to kiss her in front of the other mothers, they respond rather comically, bleating like startled sheep as they gather up their children and sprint away from the playground. But we know that Sarah has only dipped her toe in the pool of cool water that they, parched and sweaty, have eyed hungrily for months. Of course, what they all sense (and only Sarah chooses to ignore) is that this pool is infested with hungry sharks. Having tested the waters and found herself thirsty for more, she buys a new bathing suit and gets ready to dive in.

There is a pervasive motif in Little Children of trains rushing headlong down the tracks, unable to get off, slow down, or change directions. Some may be on a collision course with each other, and the closer we get to the climax, the more imminent a train wreck of some sort seems to be. Sarah and Brad are caught up in a seamy affair which steadily gathers steam, placing them on a path to destruction. It begins with seemingly innocent and harmless flirtations, but they are both playing with fire, and we know it (as do they, although they both pretend not to).

As we hurtle towards the climax, everything seems about to go very wrong for these characters, and I mentally steeled myself for a very tragic and uncomfortable finish. But then a very unexpected (some might say unlikely) and very undeserved window of grace opens up in front of Sarah, Brad, Ronnie and Larry, and they stumble miraculously through it. It is as though some benevolent force has reached down and thrown the switch at the last possible second, allowing the trains to hurtle harmlessly on, passing within inches of one another.

I’ve almost forgotten to even mention the narration, which is actually rather a compliment. Will Lyman’s periodic interjections effectively add an extra dimension on to a number of scenes, granting a depth of understanding that would otherwise be impossible to achieve. There is a certain literary quality in this expository element. The grandest thing about it is that it is not in the least intrusive, as narration so often can be.

Little Children is artfully made, but seldom have I seen sin look so ugly, destructive or dangerous as it does here. This is serious, and it is scary: an effect that would be impossible to achieve if the movie were not so well done. So many scenes will stay with me (for various reasons), remaining fresh in my mind for days and resurfacing periodically for much longer: the afternoon when Ronnie pays a visit to the town pool; the group discussion of Madame Bovary; that outrageously self-aware football game.

Most of all, though, I think audiences will struggle with the ending. Some may feel that it betrays the entire tone of the film, or resolves a complex set-up too easily. I’m not so sure that’s true. As I mentioned above, the more I consider it, the more amazing the ending seems. We know exactly what these people deserve, we all know the wages of sin. It is expected, almost necessary, here. Instead, the viewer is surprised by the joy of grace unlooked for.

When we consider it honestly, the possibility of receiving grace does seem unlikely, implausible even, for all of humanity. Nevertheless, grace is abundant and available to all, sometimes even those who don’t know enough to be on the lookout for it. The power of this film may lie in its startling, revolting depiction of sin, but its beauty is in the grace forced upon its characters. What an incredible gift.

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~ by Jared on April 27, 2007.

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