Monday, January 08, 2007

Swimming Pools & Movie Stars: Random Thoughts about Little Children

Little Children (finally!) opened at the Crossroads Bijou this weekend; for those of you who don’t live in San Antonio, it’s also on 100 or so other screens across the country. After months of building it up in my head as this probable piece of celluloid perfection (due to numerous factors), and then subsequently worrying that it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype (due to experiencing the "letdown" too many times to count), I discovered a work even more rewarding than I’d imagined or hoped. There isn’t a weak performance or moment on display, and its characters & situations left me with as many questions as they did answers. It’s unsettling material that also frequently had me in stitches, and as the end credits rolled, I was a weeping mess -- I'm still trying to figure out why that was.

Many S.A. Morgue readers know Jackie Earle Haley and many probably also know he’s been racking up awards from various critics organizations, as well as snagging a recent SAG nom for his work in the movie. Viewing Jackie in his other recent role as Sugar Boy in All the King's Men was the type of experience I often encounter when seeing a close friend performing on stage or in a film - regardless of the quality of the performance, I'm always aware that I'm watching someone I know playing a character.

Jackie's Ronnie in Little Children is a different story. Somewhere in the midst of probably his third scene, I found myself unable to wrap my brain around the fact that I've known the figure onscreen for 7 or 8 years. There was not only nothing left of the person with whom I associate, but he somehow ceased to even look like Jackie. Yes, Mr. Haley is more than deserving of the accolades he’s received - and yet he's only one reason to see this film.

Most of the above says more about me than the movie, and I’d have to see it a few more times before attempting any kind of review. The film is better discussed than reviewed anyway, so who knows if or when I’ll even try. Little Children has been compared to Kubrick. Via director Todd Field’s sterile, removed--yet inexplicably non-judgmental--approach, that doesn’t seem an overstatement. Like a Kubrick flick, it has the power to polarize; for each person who loves it, another will loathe it, which certainly indicates a measure of strength. It may even somewhat be the movie that detractors of Eyes Wide Shut have often claimed it should have been – a relevant commentary about the contemporary complexities of marriage (which isn’t to bag on Eyes, a work I dearly love). Oddly (I guess), Field played piano player Nick Nightingale in Kubrick’s swan song.

Despite my enthusiasm for all the attention that not only Jackie, but also Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson and the film itself have been given, it’s a weirdly noticable oversight that more recognition hasn’t been heaped upon Todd Field. More than any other film I’ve seen in ages, this is clearly the vision of an assured, meticulous director. He’s amassed some awards & nominations for its adapted screenplay (co-written with novelist Tom Perrotta) and the film’s got some “Best Picture” momentum (including a Golden Globe nom) - yet the directing kudos have eluded Field. It’s not that the screenplay isn’t award-worthy, but it’s the type of script that in the hands of someone less capable could easily have ended up feeling like a Lifetime TV movie. Little Children is all about Field’s direction -- how he visually and stylistically chose to interpret the material he helped put to paper. (In fact, it's easy to imagine Field directing the film in his head during the adaptation process.) If the film is hated by a viewer, I don't think it'll be the material that offends - it'll be the way the material's been presented that gets under their skin. Same thing goes for those who love it.

Maybe the oversight will be rectified come Oscar time, but it could end up being one of those bizarre predicaments where the movie’s up for Best Pic, and yet the director fails to be given a nomination. For all I know Field couldn’t care less. Despite four noms, Stanley Kubrick never won an Oscar and he didn’t seem too bothered by it (or at least his work and credibility didn't suffer). Had I the intelligence and insight to make a movie this strong, the ability just to do it would, I believe, be reward enough...which isn't to imply such aspirations have evaporated -- quite the opposite: Little Children is the kind of fare that will inspire a certain breed of filmmaker. It provides reassurance that there's still room in the marketplace for creative complexity and that a movie can still be produced without worrying about how it'll play in Peoria (or indeed anywhere, for that matter).

Field did however just win the "Visionary Award" at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. Maybe an award named as such is the most appropriate for what he's achieved with this film. Anyone who can present the world of mind-numbingly boring suburbanites -- a topic that's been dramatically and comically explored from seemingly every possible angle in recent years -- with such freshness and familiarity, must be a visionary of some kind.

The flawed institution of wedded bliss is only one of Little Children’s numerous topics. It’s best you discover the rest of its world on your own. Find out what this movie means to you, as what it meant to me will likely be irrelevant to your own experience.

Now on Tuesday I must go rent Idiocracy and see my friend Kevin Cacy strut his stuff when Mike Judge's latest hits DVD.