LITTLE CHILDREN directed by Todd Field, writtten by Field and Tom Perrotta, with Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson and Jennifer Connelly. 130 minutes. An Alliance Atlantis release. Opens Friday (October 20). For venues and times, see Movies, page 98. Rating: NNNNN
Some filmmakers avoid discuss ing metaphors and symbols in their work. Not Todd Field. The Oscar-nominated writer/director of In The Bedroom boldly states that his new film, Little Children, is an allegory about the U.S.
"We've got a society that's having a really hard time growing up," he says, in a hotel room during the Toronto International Film Festival. "We're distracted by consumer items thrown at us to make us feel young and special and convince us we'll have sex forever. We have leaders - and I use that term loosely - running around saying there's evil in the corners and we've got to band together to kill it. And we live in a very judgmental society full of shame and hypocrisy."
That's a typical Field statement, precise, quick and dispensed with a mild snort of angry frustration, as if he's thought this over many times and believes you should have, too.
Little Children is based on Tom Perrotta's novel about sex and scandal in an anonymous suburb. Gorgeous specimens Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson play people married to others who bond when their children start playing together at a park. The neighbours begin gossiping, but there's greater danger on the edges, as a man (Jackie Earle Haley) convicted of exposing himself to a minor returns to the community, stirring up hysteria.
No one in the film uses the word "pedophile," which was intentional.
"He represents an unknown evil, which could be any label," says Field, "a Commie, a terrorist. Take your pick. I didn't use the 'P word' or the 'CM phrase,' and in fact we don't even know in the film what he's done. What's interesting is how he affects the community."
One of the film's boldest strokes is the use of an omniscient narrator, who paternalistically guides us around the neighbourhood. Field flinches at the suggestion that it's a sign of lazy filmmaking.
"When I read the book, the first thing I responded to was that narrator's voice," he says. "People have all kinds of Howdy Doody peanut-gallery truisms that they think are cinematic truths."
What he set out to make, he continues, was a satirical melodrama, a strange genre that's seldom done. It requires actors to be able to modulate their performances and sometimes seem extreme and over-the-top.
"People make black comedies and satires, but not satirical melodramas," he says. "There are only two films in that genre I can think of, and they're two of my favourite films ever. They both use third-party narration. So it seemed like a very natural thing to do."
The films? "I'd rather not say," he says, although I'm thinking Barry Lyndon, by Stanley Kubrick, who directed Field as an actor in Eyes Wide Shut, is one of them.
"They're really good, and it would be hubris for me to mention them in relation to my film."
(Todd Field) Rating: NN
Little Children is Madame Bovary with SUVs, a contemporary crime-and-punishment tale set deep in American suburbia.
Sarah (Kate Winslet) and Brad (Patrick Wilson) meet at the neighbourhood park, where their children play together. Soon the frustrated parents are avoiding their spouses to play together, too; that title doesn't refer to mere toddlers.
A subplot about a man convicted of exposing himself to children jacks up the plot. Field, who was so good at suggesting undercurrents of violence in his feature debut, In The Bedroom, is stumped by the necessity of showing real violence in a script that plays uneasily with tone and mood and requires moments of hysteria.
The result, complete with annoying narration, is a well-intentioned but failed experiment.