In 2006, Jackie Earle Haley was mounting a comeback. The actor hadn’t appeared in a film since 1993 when he made a TV movie called Prophet of Evil and the third chapter of the Maniac Cop franchise. His career was simply not going very well and Haley moved to San Antonio, Texas where he eventually made a living as a director of commercials.
With a little help from Sean Penn, Haley returned to big-time Hollywood movies, first together with Penn in All the King’s Men, then as a pedophile in Little Children, a performance that garnered him an Academy Award nomination. Haley is not the star of Todd Field’s film, but his character is key to the drama.
We meet a number of people living in a comfortable Boston suburb. Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) spends her days taking care of her young daughter, but is far from enthusiastic about it. One day she befriends a handsome stay-at-home dad, Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), at the local playground. They begin to spend more time together, bringing the kids to a local pool, initially avoiding the fact that they’re attracted to each other. Both of them have problems at home. Sarah discovers that her husband (Gregg Edelman) is addicted to web porn and Brad is getting tired of his wife (Jennifer Connelly) treating him like one of the kids. Both Brad and Sarah are deeply disillusioned people searching for something to save their souls; perhaps a fling is the answer? We’re also introduced to a former cop, Larry (Noah Emmerich), who’s now unemployed and desperately trying to fill his days with something worthwhile.
When a man called Ronnie McGorvey (Haley) moves back to the neighborhood to live with his mom after being released from prison for indecent exposure to a minor, Larry finds a cause. No one wants Ronnie, who’s fighting a losing battle against his urges, living near their kids, but when Larry tries to make the pedophile understand that he should move, his own dark past gets the better of him.
Offers necessary changes
The story is based on an acclaimed novel by Tom Perrotta. Field decided that the adaptation should involve the man who wrote it and the result of the collaboration is a movie that captures the essence of Perrotta’s work, but offers necessary changes. As the title indicates, this is a story about grown-ups behaving like little children. They’re not happy with their situations, but don’t really understand (or don’t care) that actions have consequences and that other people might get hurt in the process. Ironically, their behavior is contrasted with that of a pedophile; his actions also hurt others and are selfish, but he’s sick and unable to break free from what ails him. The others, though, should have the power not to be governed by their whims. The question is how far they’re willing to play their games.
The movie remains unpredictable throughout and also poses challenging questions about how to balance the need for sex criminals to get a second chance and the need for parents to feel that their children are safe. Excellent performances all around, particularly by Haley who depends on his loving mother who still thinks it’s possible for her son to meet a nice girl and settle down.
The movie is narrated by Will Lyman, a real pro at this sort of thing. Most movies get by without a narrating voice, but watching this one is like reading a great novel and Lyman provides us with a deeper insight into the characters. It’s a literary touch that pays off. After two deeply touching dramas, this and In the Bedroom (2001), I can’t wait to see what Todd Field comes up with next.
Little Children 2006-U.S. 137 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Todd Field, Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa. Directed by Todd Field. Screenplay: Todd Field, Tom Perrotta. Novel: Tom Perrotta. Music: Thomas Newman. Cast: Kate Winslet (Sarah Pierce), Patrick Wilson (Brad Adamson), Jennifer Connelly (Kathy Adamson), Gregg Edelman, Noah Emmerich, Jackie Earle Haley. Narrated by Will Lyman.
Last word: “In terms of what’s visually depicted in the movie, it’s not real; it’s not meant to be real. The playground is a playground from my imagination about the way I remember a playground when I was a boy. Those play structures don’t exist. My children never played on play structures that old – they’re from 1965. That house full of clocks… I grew up in a house full of clocks. Those hummel figures at the beginning with the little children, those are from Tom Perrotta’s house as a boy growing up in New Jersey. We tried to find a setting, or almost dreamscape, that had meaning for us personally as children. It was never meant to be a realistic depiction of suburbia in any way, shape or form.” (Field, indieLondon)