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Little Children (Todd Field, 2006)



THE WHERE:
At the good ol' Bytowne with Krystle as part of our weekly movie watching. It was nice going back to a real movie theater. I hadn't been in ages simply because nothing playing there had interested me in a long time

THE WHY:
Two words: Todd Field. From the day I first watched it in 2002, I've considered his In the Bedroom to be one of the greatest films ever made. Watching this film was and still remains the most sickening and visceral film experience I have ever had. Now this would normally be a pretty sad reason to declare any film a masterpiece, since these sorts of labels are usually attached to so-called "edgy" or "controversial" pieces of crap that resort to excessive violence and/or abhorrent imagery simply to shock. But In the Bedroom does not, far from it. The miracle of the film is that it features next to no violence, nudity, or swearing. Field's direction is so quiet, so subtle, and so confident, you'd be forgiven for thinking that he had been making films for decades. The relentless and overwhelming sense of sadness and grief that consumes this film is completely reliant on good old-fashioned directorial choices (and two stellar performances by Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson). The film is painful and depressing as hell to watch but never for the mere sake of being masochistic. Each scene manages to provides a profound empathetic insight into the souls of these characters and their plight even while it breaks your heart. Having said all that, is it any surprise that I have anxiously been waiting 4 years now (has it really been that long?) to watch anything with a "Directed by Todd Field" title card attached to it?

THE UGLY:
Little Children for me was a film about conflict, a conflict of mediums that is. It's a film that is clearly a slave to its original novel and to literary devices for that matter. Fortunately, every once in awhile and for the better part of the second half, it transcends all that and displays Field at his best, which is to say that it is the power of cinema at both its most powerful and most subtle. It was quite a maddening experience watching it as you don't often see a film bounce all over the place like this, attempting to be so literary and yet so cinematic at the same time.

Now I'm no literary expert by far, but it seems to me that such blatant "lit 101" devices such as the Madame Bovary allusions to Sarah, Brad's attempt to recapture his youthful "prom king" days through football and skateboarding (a much better depiction of a similar situation would be Matt Dillon's character in Beautiful Girls) , the Stepford wives-like behaviour of the three young mothers etc. are things that can be both clever and heartfelt in a novel, but unfortunately, comes across as merely clever and cynical when translated directly to film. It's one thing to read on the page that Brad would watch the skateboarders for sometimes hours, attempting to recapture his youth. It's quite another thing to actually watch Brad do it even for a few seconds without thinking that this seems utterly unrealistic and manipulative. The same goes for all the above.

These things in themselves would not be a problem if that was the type of film that Field set out to make, but clearly it's not. His direction betrays the fact that he does in fact care deeply about all of his characters, flaws and all. But he keeps these devices throughout the film and to the bitter end. For all his revolutionary cinematic devices in Breathless, not even Godard tried to make us feel for his characters. Had Belmondo's character broken down and cried like a baby as he died at the end, would any of us care? It seems to me that you can toy with the form, but it's a much harder and precarious thing to toy with people's emotions.

It doesn't feel like it was a matter of indecision. Clearly Field set out to do both purposefully, the subtle heartfelt character studies as well as the lifted literary devices, and in truth he does both rather well on their own, but in this case, the whole is truly less than the sum of its parts.

The crux of the movie is the character's of Sarah and Brad and their feelings of desperation and being trapped in an unfulfilling life. Heavy stuff. But while we learn a great deal about their hidden desires and needs from the exorbitant amount of time we spend with them along with additional insights being provided by Mr. Narrator, we are given very little emotional understanding of their situations. From their very first scene together in the park, if we were to mute the sound, I'm sure the audiences would be fooled into thinking that they were watching a flirtatious couple rather than reluctant lovers. The narrator talks of their supposed agonizing restraint, but the film itself never shows it (contrast this to the beautiful restraint showcased in say In the Mood for Love, and without a pesky narrator at that!). Take the bookclub scene where Sarah expresses her newfound empathy with Madame Bovary. Field directs it very sympathetically, as if we too should be empathizing with both her and Madame Bovary, but how as an audience can we? We're never given a chance to feel her (or Brad's) isolation, we're only told about it. As such, the scene just comes off as pretentious and self-gratifying.

In fact, all the film's melodramatic tales of redemption reminded me very much of Paul Thomas Anderson's classic Magnolia. And while Magnolia's melodrama was infinitely grander than Little Children's, it works much better, why is that? I think it has to do with Anderson's sincerity through and through, whereas Field oscillates between being sincere and relying on either cinematic parlour tricks (such as the little vignette showcasing Jennifer Connelly's perfection) or clever literary devices. Is it any surprise than that I found the more "one-dimensional" characters of Larry and Ronny to be the most memorable and insightful characters of the entire film?

Where the film really shines for me is where Todd Field displays his penchant for minimalist filmmaking, allowing the characters to speak for themselves. One of the best scenes I've seen all year has to be where Ronny is out on a date, and finds his eyes instinctively drawn to the children across from his table. He tries to ignore them and the camera captures this without resorting to blunt close-ups or grand histrionics on Ronny's part. His face hardly changes as he slightly leans into the table, but that's enough to powerfully convey his internal desperation to master his urges. The most wonderful moment of the film in fact is when he asks his date about about her medical condition, at first to just distract himself from the children, but in doing so finds himself engrossed in her story and they end up sharing a touching empathetic moment. Even Larry's less poetic thread of trying to find redemption in a misguided way is at least saved from being explained to death by the narrator allowing the viewer the freedom to discover who he is and decide for themselves.

Another fantastic scene is one where Jennifer Connelly's character finds herself moved after watching footage from her documentary on the children of soldiers sent to Iraq and decides to call home. It's a beautiful little vignette that single-handedly adds so much depth to her character. The fact that Field decides to throw it in despite having no direct relation to the plot is a sign in itself of Field's understanding of the importance of emotional thematic tangents in the medium of film.

I can't remember ever wanting to give a film 4 stars that had so many things wrong with it. That's a real tribute to how highly I think of Todd Field's work here as a director and his dedication and recognition of when the camera should play the "wait and see" game. He even uses the same plain title cards and font as he used for In the Bedroom! And despite its flaws, after this film there's no doubt in my mind that Field is already and will continue to be one of our generations greatest filmmakers. A man with a fantastic understanding of how to use the medium to capture the human experience at its best, and worst.


Resources:
  • Trailer (Fantastic trailer! Very dramatic)

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