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LITTLE CHILDREN

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Kate Winslet, Jennifer Connelly, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Noah Emmerich, Phyllis Somerville
Director: Todd Field
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: New Line Cinema
Features: See Review
Length: 137 Minutes
Release Date: May 1, 2007

ďSo now cheating on your husband makes you a feminist?Ē

ďNo, no, no. Itís not the cheating. Itís the hunger. The hunger for an alternative, and the refusal to accept a life of unhappiness.Ē

Film ****

Films can be great for different reasons but if a film is able hold your attention right from the opening scene, making you anticipate each scene that follows, you know that you are watching a pure masterpiece. I canít think of a better recent film to serve as an example than Todd Fieldís Little Children. The film engrosses you and doesnít let go for a single second, unfolding in a rare literary form.

Just when you think youíve seen every possible movie dealing with suburban adults experiencing a mid life crises, Field (who also directed the remarkable In the Bedroom) paints a cinematic picture that feels extraordinarily new. Added to that, Field has collaborated on the screenplay with author Tom Perrotta, who wrote the novel upon which the film is based. The result may just be one of the finest examples ever of a cinematic adaptation of a literary work.

The film opens with a news report about the presence of a convicted sex offender in the neighborhood. The man, Ronald James McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley, in his Oscar nominated role) has returned to his motherís home after serving a two-year sentence in prison. The concerned parents of the neighborhood have created an organization and have distributed flyers notifying everyone of his presence.

That plotline will come into play later in the film. The centerpiece of the story focuses on Sarah (Kate Winslet, also in an Oscar nominated role), an ultra-bored housewife whose daily routine basically consists of taking her daughter to the neighborhood playground and chatting with a trio of fellow suburban mothers, who eye her in a judgmental fashion. Sarah, the film indicates, is the not the typical suburban woman.

During one normally routine day at the playground Sarah, taking a bet from one of the other mothers, engages in a conversation with Brad (Patrick Wilson), who the women have dubbed ďThe Prom KingĒ. He has made many visits to the playground with his son, and always manages to catch the attention of the women. Little do she or Brad realize that their first conversation, along with some pretend flirting, will lead to something neither one of them could have predicted.

Both Sarah and Brad are trapped in not-so-happy marriages, and the film deliciously reveals the details at the best point. Brad is a stay-at-home dad whose wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), is a documentary filmmaker for PBS. And although Brad graduated from law school two years ago he hasnít succeeded in passing the bar exam, having taken it twice. Added to that, he is frequently denied sex from the wife, who seems to find every excuse in the book to put it off.

Brad, though a responsible father, is essentially an adolescent trapped in an adultís body. On nights when he intends on heading to the library to study for the bar, he ends up watching skateboarders in a nearby park. He canít help but watch with a sense of joy, as it triggers a sense of youth he has long lost and helps him escape the thoughts of his boring life.

As for Sarah, her marriage is sour for a more disturbing reason. She seems to be the only one tending to her daughter. Her husband, on the other hand, seems to devote more time to indulging in an online affair. She even walks in on him at one point, witnessing him in an unbelievable act.

Those factors only help in increasing the sexual tension between Sarah and Brad. They start accompanying each other, with their kids, on daily visits to the town pool. They pretend to be hanging around together for the sake of their kids, but what lies underneath canít be denied. Then during one rainy afternoon, the inevitable happens.

Their sexual affair is at first just an intense physical attraction that serves as an escape from their marriage lives. But then both begin to sense that there is more to it than that. Before long, Sarah and Brad both truly believe that they are meant for one another, meaning that they should just leave everything behind and runaway together.

As at this love affair intensifies, we are then brought back to the storyline involving Ronnie, the convicted sex offender. The target of hate from all the concerned parents of the neighborhood, Ronnie is nonetheless protected by his ever-loving mother (Phyllis Somerville). A residentís anger at the very thought of Ronnieís presence in the neighborhood leads to a confrontation that ends terribly.

I mention how superb the film unfolds. A great deal of that has to do with the stunning use of narration, provided by Will Lyman of PBSí Frontline series. The narration adds so much to film in ways I wouldnít normally expect and it adds to the filmís literary like qualities. It was a risky movie, and it might not have worked on other material, but it gives this film true power.

The acting in Little Children is nothing short of astonishing. Kate Winslet, with so many great performances on her resume, has probably given her BEST performance yet as the emotionally conflicted Sarah. Itís definitely one of her most challenging roles yet, both in physical and emotional qualities. It illustrates that Ms. Winslet is one of the most fearless actresses of her generation.

And though Winslet was rewarded with an Oscar nod for her work, I canít really figure out why Patrick Wilson didnít nab a nomination for his strong work as Brad. Wilson is a rising star who was terrific as the sexual predator in Hard Candy, and here delivers even greater work with such a perfectly written character. Hey, any man whoís caught between Kate Winslet and Jennifer Connelly would be any actorís dream, right?

Iíve seen plenty of great films in 2006, and although I was late in catching this film (it never made it to the theaters in my area), Iíve already made a space for it on my list of the best films of last year. Little Children is a bold, provocative and remarkably crafted piece of work from an outstanding filmmaker. And did I mention that this is only Mr. Fieldís 2nd directorial feature? Needless to say, his future works will be eagerly anticipated.

This is not a film to be missed.

Video ****

New Line has delivered one stunning looking presentation. The film carries a poetic look to it, with so many amazingly shot sequences. The anamorphic picture showcases this quality throughout, as the remarkable camera work of cinematographer Antonio Calvache shines in the best possible form. Image quality is thoroughly crisp and clear, and the color quality is absolutely rich. Simply stunning all across the board!

Audio ***1/2

Possibly the strongest audio presentation Iíve heard lately for what is basically a dialogue driven piece. The 5.1 mix is superb in the way it manages to capture sounds in the distance (the opening shot is such an example). Dialogue delivery is tremendously clear, especially in the case of the narratorís delivery. No major sound distortion at all!

Features (Zero Stars)

What a shame. I havenít given this low a rating on any disc in quite some time and of all the titles I didnít want to give it to, this would be right at the top of the list. But honestly, thereís nothing included. Only a few brief previews prior to the menu screen, which is common on just about every release.

Now that I think about it, the DVD for In the Bedroom was free of extras as well. I can only hope that this wonít be a recurring element in Mr. Fieldís releases.

Summary:

Little Children is a powerful and beautifully realized piece of cinematic drama, as well as one of the very best films of 2006. Acting, directing, cinematography and story are all of the most superior order. And it will stay in your mind long after watching it!

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