I had never heard of this movie until shortly before watching it, but apparently it was a somewhat big deal when it came out (in 2006). It was nominated for multiple Academy Awards and Golden Globes. Though it has more the feel of an indie (albeit not a real low budget one) than a mainstream Hollywood movie, it does have some “name” actors and actresses in it, including Kate Winslet.
Little Children is based on a novel, with the novel apparently being more openly exaggerated or satirical. I suppose there’s some element of that in the movie version too, but I experienced it as 95% straight drama.
The story takes place in a Boston suburb. There are multiple plotlines, multiple characters that we get to know.
Sarah is a young, stay-at-home mother with a toddler daughter. There seems to be little left in her marriage to feel positive about—it’s at the point where her catching her husband masturbating to online porn elicits little more of a reaction from her than rolling her eyes in disgust—and while her relationship with her daughter appears in better shape than that, and at least in terms of going through the motions she fulfills her duty of responsible parenting, there’s a certain lack of warmth and connection relative to what you’d like to see in a mother-child relationship. In a voiceover early in the film she admits that initially she was happy about the opportunity to spend so much time with her daughter, but that now she feels relieved whenever her husband arrives home and she need no longer be solely responsible for keeping the child active and entertained. She refers to her daughter as a “little stranger.”
Most days she takes her daughter to the park, and sits with a catty bunch of moms who are competitive and judgmental, make overconfident pronouncements on marriage and child raising, and treat her like she doesn’t have what it takes to pass muster as a supermom like them. One of their favorite things to gossip about is the “prom king”—the one dad who sometimes brings his toddler son to the park, who they think is pretty hot stuff. They’ve never worked up the nerve to speak to him, probably in part because they like the fantasy element of his remaining an unknown so their speculations about him need not be constrained by actual facts.
Sarah, who thinks as little of them as they do of her, decides to show them up by boldly approaching him and making contact. She finds out his name is Brad, and soon they and their kids are routinely spending time together during the days.
Brad is a stay-at-home dad, married to a driven, young professional (documentary filmmaker), who is attractive but in kind of a castrating ice queen way. He has completed law school and is supposed to be taking the bar exam soon (for the third time; he has already failed it twice). He feels pressured by her expectations that he finally grow up and start his career, and there’s the sense that he pretty much needs to if he is to regain any sort of status as a man in the relationship. But as I read her, that ship may well have sailed. That is, on the surface she encourages him to make progress with his life and become more conventionally successful like her in order to win her respect, but she seems quite content to wear the pants in the relationship and I doubt by now she’d welcome any challenge to that.
So one of the subplots is the development of a relationship between Sarah and Brad. Will they consummate it, i.e., will it become an adulterous affair? Will any such involvement be brief and/or superficial, or will something more substantial come out of it that might lead them to end their marriages to be with each other?
Meanwhile, a man—Ronnie—is released from prison after serving a term for indecent exposure to a minor, and moves back to the neighborhood to live with his mother. In accordance with the law, everyone in the neighborhood is informed of his presence, and he must abide by certain restrictions, like not coming within such-and-such distance of a school or playground.
To varying degrees, the neighbors are appalled by his living there and are fearful and hostile toward him. The most extreme such reaction comes from Larry, an ex-cop who we learn was pressured into early retirement after an incident where he accidentally killed a kid.
Larry does things like stand outside Ronnie’s house and shout threats to him, and try to organize the other neighbors to somehow force him to move away. He—or other similarly minded people; he’s not actually shown doing it—scrawls obscene or threatening graffiti on the sidewalk in front of Ronnie’s house.
One of the elements of the film that most got through to me emotionally is the relationship between Ronnie and his mother.
In a sense I suppose Ronnie is presented as a sympathetic character, especially early when just about all we see of him is as a target of hatred, but the more we get to know him the more apparent it becomes how truly mentally ill he is.
But his mother is an exemplar of unconditional love. It is clear she will support him, will seek to heal him, will be on his side, and will never give up hope regardless of what he does or what happens.
And in his way he is a dutiful son. However inappropriate his behavior may be toward others, and whatever demons he is coping with, he never loses his warmth toward his mother. I’m sure he realizes, and appreciates, that in a sense she really is all he’s got.
She tries to build up his confidence, and encourages him to become more active in his life and initiate healthy relationships. He tells her it’s all hopeless, but smiles with indulgence and agrees to her insistence that he answer an ad and go on a blind date.
It’s hard to write about this without spoilers, but I’ll at least try not to be real specific. But anyway, the woman he goes on the date with turns out to have some serious emotional issues of her own that are now at least partly under control with medication, but that have largely prevented her from having a normal relationship.
She is reluctant to come out of her shell, as she has clearly been burned badly in the past when she has. But over the course of their dinner—which both of them began with the attitude that this was all quite pointless because they were undateable—they gradually start to connect. It seems as though encountering someone who also has had a very difficult life due to mental illness has triggered empathy in him. It’s maybe a little unrealistic, maybe a little corny, but it looks as though these two very flawed people might well be a good match.
But then just as her reluctance to let herself hope for that has finally melted away, Ronnie’s mental illness manifests itself in a particularly shocking way. And you have the sense that she is now nothing more than an object to him, that either that whole sequence when he seemed to be genuinely touched by her story and to see her as a kindred spirit that he could care for was an illusion, or that it was temporary and could not be sustained when it was overwhelmed by his sickness.
And then you see his mother’s face when he returns home from his date and she infers just how badly it went. That’s a heartbreaking moment, I’d say the strongest moment of the film. Because just as she’s all he has, at her age and with all she has invested in him he’s all she has, and you know that she’s going to keep believing in him and doing everything in her power to help him to have the best life he can possibly have, including by becoming more “normal,” and you know—and at some level she knows—that she’ll almost certainly have to endure an endless series of disappointments like this one.
So why is the film called “Little Children”? The most straightforward reason is that many of the characters, including Sarah and Brad, are raising young children, and a lot of the movie has to do with parenting issues. But beyond that, I suppose it’s a reference to the fact that many of the adult characters are behaving in childish ways, and really haven’t emotionally evolved much beyond that stage.
That’s clearest in the case of Ronnie. He’s a mama’s boy who at times reverts to blatantly infantile behavior. He’s emotionally and sexually childish in an extreme enough way to cross the line into mental illness.
But Larry certainly behaves childishly in some respects, as do the annoying supermoms. And Sarah and Brad arguably are childish in how they put their marriages at risk. Brad especially seems held back in his life by a need to recapture something he had in his youth; he gets involved with Larry’s touch football team in order to relive his glory as a high school quarterback, and becomes obsessed with watching teenage skateboarders, envying them their not having to worry about things like the bar exam or child raising.
As Sarah and Brad become closer to each other and start to toy with maybe running off together or whatever, a part of me—the romantic part of me—was drawn in by that, by this notion of letting everything else go when you find your soulmate and wanting to make a life with them regardless of whatever drawbacks the situation might contain, but at least as big a part of me was made uncomfortable by it as a kind of manifestation of the unrealistic fantasy infatuation of a couple of adolescents.
Indeed in the end—and again I won’t get specific—Brad behaves as a total flake, confirming his childishness. (Some might read it otherwise, that he changes course because he’s finally growing up, but my assessment of him dropped considerably.)
Little Children is a film that I was moderately into most of the way, but that I gradually felt more for as it developed, and in the aftermath of seeing it I’ve come to realize that it had as strong an emotional effect on me as only maybe the top 20% of movies I see. I didn’t love all of it—for example, the Larry character, and the ending scene with him and Ronnie didn’t fully work for me—but on the whole this is a clear winner.