November 2, 2006

Movielog: Little Children

Filed under: movielog — ted @ 5:11 pm

Little Children
Rating: Very Good

A few days ago I posted clippings from reviews of Babel, the upcoming movie by Alejandro González Iñárritu. A.O. Scott of the Times forwarded that Babel “belongs to an increasingly common, as yet unnamed genre — “Crash” is perhaps the most prominent recent example — in which drama is created by the juxtaposition of distinct stories, rather than by the progress of a single narrative arc.” This was immensely interesting to me, and I’ve been looking for it in other movies of late.

Little Children is not in this vein, but it does have a two-tiered story rather than a single narrative. The main story is the adulterous relationship between Kate Winslet’s Sarah and Patrick Wilson’s Brad, who are the primary caregivers of their small children, and forge a bond while watching their offspring at the playground and the pool. But the second story, that of Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), a convicted sex offender who moves into a calm ex-suburban community, and his foil, Larry (Noah Emmerich), a former police man who takes it upon himself to harass Ronnie, plastering WARNING signs around town and forming a Coalition of Concerned Parents, comes increasingly to the forefront as the movie progresses. The two stories are not treated equally, occur in the same location, and do intersect, so any comparison to Crash or Babel is a stretch — but it’s one I’m willing to make so I can flush out the thoughts I’m spinning right now…

My hope is that filmmakers who create movies with crashing story lines will have enough faith in their stories, and in their audience, to allow their elements to meld, rather than force them together (this, I think, is fatal flaw of Crash — especially it’s lack of faith in its audience). The slippery matter at the heart of this is intent: a writer and/or filmmaker always has one, and by putting two or more stories together in the same work of art, he connects them together in his mind. Ideally, the stories should connect in such a way that the connection is apparent without the creator’s intent becoming equally apparent. The best way to counter the problem of intent is to put one’s faith in form itself: if a film is well-made, and every aspect is firing on the right cylinders, the meaning should emerge without the filmmaker having to worry about whether his intent is coming across. Many artists have dealt with this by stifling their desire to communicate their intent, and simply focusing on the work and concerning themselves with its excellence.

Little Children avoids this for the most part, although its two serious flaws stem from the desire to over-communicate. The first is the presence of a third-person narrator, who delivers his omniscient observations with a touch of irony, as if to say: “I’m telling you what the character is thinking, but I’m winking, so it should be funny.” The narration is a failure: it disappears for over an hour, and emerges at just the wrong time — as if the filmmakers didn’t know what else to do. Not only did this expose the filmmaker’s intent, but it belied it but taking an ironic stance. As for the second error, to fully explain would be a spoiler, but it comes at the very end of the film, concerns the minor narrative, and taints what is otherwise a wonderfully understated film.

I’ve offered nothing but criticism, yet I do think this film is “very good.” The tension between Sarah and Paul is marvelous, and both characters are well-written and well-acted (I just adore Kate Winslet, any and all the time — I can’t think of an actress I think is better). The particular sadnesses and discontent of the two main characters is deeply felt, and just the right sort of uncomfortable. All told, it’s one of the best I’ve seen this year.


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