Sunday, March 23, 2008

"Little Children" (spoiler--right--everyone else has probably already seen this)

One of the consequences of having children and living on one income is that we don't see current movies much. Amend that to current adult movies. A friend of mine doesn't have children, and she frequently funnels some recommendations in my direction--about a hundredth of which I actually get to see.

Gary took the boys snow camping last night on Mt. Hood. There was a window of clear weather that they went for; it's wet and windy here in town now so I expect this self-time will be short-lived.

(I was a little torn about not going. I hate to think the boys will only associate adventures like this with their dad. I'm sure that it seems entirely unreal to them since they don't have much direct evidence that I was once a competent and full participant in an outdoor life of climbing, skiing, backpacking.

The reality is that I have much less time to myself now, and then Friday I assisted at Scott's school by being a driver on a field trip to the Audobon Society. My decision fell on the side of recharging batteries and letting another nail be driven into the coffin that mothers don't pursue adventure. It will probably be a long time before they can comprehend the rigors of the life of the mind.)

So I took my friend's recommendation from at least a year ago and rented "Little Children." Today I'm permeated by the atmosphere of the movie, and trying to make some sense of the sensations.

The atmosphere is a sort of dread and despair. Various guises of ugliness; people behaving badly, shame. Clumsily seeking to alleviate aching emptiness.

This isn't a standard movie with a clearly delineated plot. It's more like a study of a small web of alienated people. And then there's this dispassionate narrator whose voice occasionally highlights the actions of the protagonists. I'm reminded of the narrator in the children's show 'Tellytubbies" where occasionally a neutral male voice will inform the viewer what the character is seeing, or feeling, or doing.

So there's an aspect of the movie that is reminiscent of children's programs, in a movie where relationships are souring like milk turning. The movie opens in a park where children are playing under the watch of four mothers. The one played by Kate Winslet, Sara, is apart from the others and obviously not taking pleasure in their presence. We're informed that desperation has brought her here; it is more painful to face empty hours alone at home with her 3 year old daughter than it is to endure the company of the other shallow and judgmental housewives. She copes by seeing herself as an anthropologist 'studying their ways.'

In my mind I'm holding this template of mothers in the park up to my chest, seeing if it fits and where it diverges. I've been very lucky to not have women like these other mothers in my life. (Competitive mothering) The mothers I've hung out with in parks have active lives of the mind, and we didn't need self-stimulation in the form of pecking at others. We talked about ideas, we talked about parenting and the challenges, we talked about parenting theories. And mainly we were informed by the point of view that children are works in progress--that you can't judge a child's character by his or her failure to behave according to adult standards of selflessness and generosity. We sought to mediate fairly among disputes and I felt a sense of safety with these women: if my child was misbehaving they understood it would probably be theirs next and we didn't judge each other.

So the movie opens with a group of mothers, one of whom feels alienated; the others sense this and take a kind of personal satisfaction in the difficulties she's having with her child. Then, into the park comes a man with his son. "The prom king!" the women whisper excitedly. It's clear this is a regular ripple in their lives, the presence of this nice-looking young man nurturing a small child. They never speak to him, only about him. Sara's daughter wants to swing on the swing next to the little boy whose father is pushing him; as Sara gets up to walk over one of the mothers impulsively offers her $5 to get his phone number.

Pushing their children together, they find a few things to talk about, feel some commonality and warmth. As he takes his leave to follow his son, Sara calls him close to her and suggests that they shock the other women by hugging. Then she suggests they go further and they kiss.

OK, I'm just not able to suspend my disbelief quite this far. Yes, she's desperate and bored, but I can't imagine that it's to such a pitch that she'd so completely leap beyond the bounds of what's considered normal behavior. This is a flaw for me in the movie, that their beginning is premised on this.

In the meantime, we've learned that a sexual deviant, who was jailed for exposing himself to a child has been released from jail and is living in their community with his mother. People of the community are in arms with a lot of righteous sentiments about 'protecting our children'. His mug shot that's widely distributed and posted shows a man with the kind of creepiness you'd associate with the 'classic' monstrous sexual deviant. He's the kind we're told sort of personifies an idea of sexual deviants, but we shouldn't be deceived because most of them don't really look like that. Most of them look like...trusted adults. This guy, Ronnie, though is the stereotype.

Brad is the prom king, and we're introduced to him through his play with his son. I felt a pang to see him lying on the floor beside a Thomas track, playing trains with the little guy to his intense delight. He was showing a level of playful imagination that I could never attain; I just could not play that way with my children. I feel like that's a major flaw in me, that I could not enter that 'let's pretend' world with them willingly, happily. I hated it, and I think it must have shown. They deserved better than that.

The narrator informs us that Brad keeps imagining Sara's kiss over and over. He hopes she'll come to the pool where he told her he takes his son. We see that though he appears to genuinely enjoy his son's company that he's not comfortable in his role of at-home dad; he feels diminished by his successful documentary-filmmaker wife, he has failed his bar exams twice. His wife has assigned him to study nightly at the library, but instead he sits and watches teen-aged skaters at the community center. They never acknowledge him.

One night as he's watching a van pulls up and a man's voice shouts at him that he's a pervert. It turns out to be someone he's acquainted with, Larry, a retired cop, who impulsively conscripts him to quarterback for the policeman's night league football team. We learn that Larry is the sole founder and member of a 'committee' to target and object to the presence of the sex offender in their neighborhood. He frequently will drive by the man's house in the middle of the night and harass them by honking his horn and flashing lights.

We learn that Larry has his own demons--forced to retire from the force after an incident where he shot and killed a 13 year old in a mall who was playing pretend with friends with an air gun at a sporting store. He has post traumatic stress disorder and his life keeps narrowing: to night-league football (which he takes very personally), a kind of hero-worship of Brad, and harassing Ronnie and his mother. His wife has taken the kids and left him.

We see a picture of Ronnie at home with his mother who loves him fiercely. We realize that though an adult, he is her child. We see that he's child-like, calls her Mommy. She acknowledges that he 'did a bad thing'; naively thinks if she could 'fix him up' with a woman that he won't have those 'bad urges' any more. They place an ad in the personals section of the paper.

She tells her son that he 'is a miracle. We all are.' She points out to him the miracle of humanity which reminds me of the poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

"But what a shining animal is man,
Who knows, when pain subsides, that is not that,
For worse than that must follow--yet can write
Music; can laugh; play tennis; even plan."

So there are different aspects of 'Little Children'. We see a child that is nearly perfectly loved by father and mother together--but the achilles heel in that is the mother's implied contempt for the father. We see a mother who wears her daughter like a burden that she doesn't quite know what do do with, an annoying distraction. (Self-recognition, pang of guilt) There's a father who has driven his wife and children away, and deprived another family of their child. We see a mother's fiercely protective love for a very troubled man. We're made to feel sympathy for him, and horror and revulsion as we see the unvarnished truth of who he really is. He's a mother's son, and he's fatally twisted, as we see on his 'date'.

And all these elements come together in one night--a football game where Brad scores a winning touchdown and has his joy heightened at the presence of Sara in the stands cheering for him wildly...Larry sitting at a bar to celebrate waiting for Brad (who has completely forgotten him) and, stood up, goes to wreak his humiliation on Ronnie. Ronnie's mother has a heart attack in the confrontation and later dies in the night. In the meantime Brad, feeling empowered and flushed by his football victory, asks Sara to run away with him. Everything comes together in the park where she waits for him with her daughter. However, while walking to the park he stops again to watch the skateboarders and for the first time is included among them. He is invited to try what one kid just did--skating off a flight of about 15 concrete steps. Perhaps again he is powered by his football victory. Sara is still waiting when Ronnie stumbles into the park. She is terribly fearful, but then realizes he's oblivious to her and is wracked with sobs. She approaches him cautiously to learn that his mother has died, and in that instance can't find her daughter.

So is this a sort of healing moment? A point of crisis for each of them from which they move on? Sara is taking her daughter home. Brad, awakening to a circle above him, his policeman friend and admiring teen-aged skaters, realizes he is not leaving his family either. Ronnie, who's final message from his mother is: "Be a good boy" has realized the only way he can possibly do that is to castrate himself (an echoing theme in the movie: "he should be castrated, castrated, castrated."). As he is bleeding in the park Larry comes to him to tell him how sorry he is and suddenly is frantic to save the life of the man he'd been persecuting.

Lots of different elements in this movie, allowed to exist in juxtaposition, generating tension. Much of the tension is still unresolved at the end, which is what makes this different from regular movie fare. Kind of satisfying in the way that it doesn't satisfy.

Like life.


Lori said...

OK. So I'm as out of it as you when it comes to movies.

I hadn't even heard of this. But I looked it up on imdb and, with your synopsis, I really want to see it.

excavator said...

It had a disquieting effect; kind of invaded my dreams too. This is a movie that alters an internal emotional landscape.

Suzy said...

So many complex issues intertwined.

Thanks for the review. I will try and catch it.