Fear dominates our contemporary culture. It paints our air traffic patterns yellow, orange, and red. Fear profiles and wiretaps. Fear empowers and is empowered by a war on terror. Fear rages in our inner cities and lurks in our suburbs. It is this fear into which director Todd Fields (In the Bedroom) has so acutely tapped for his latest film, Little Children, one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2006.
Little Children contains two plot lines. The first, and most prevalent, follows Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) and Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), two beautiful, wealthy, married-with-children, yet spiritually and emotionally empty suburbanites. Through a chance encounter at the local park where they daily escort their own little children, they begin an adulterous affair that includes heated sex while their children nap and their spouses work, conversations by the community pool, and even a night away. They would run away together except the same emotional malaise that brings them together also drives them apart.
Little Children would be just another adulterous love story if not for the second plot line that creates an aura of fear and tension in which the lovers and the wider community exist. The film opens with a newscast reporting the release of a convicted sex-offender (he exposed himself to two young girls), Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), and his relocation back into the community where he now lives with his mother May (Phyllis Somerville). Opposite Ronnie, we have Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich), a former policeman and current leader of the Committee for Concerned Parents, a group seeking to maintain vigilant awareness of Ronnie’s presence in the community. We quickly suspect that Larry is not all he seems and soon learn that, as a policeman, he was involved in an accidental, fatal shooting of a teenager that led to his subsequent dismissal from the force due to post traumatic stress syndrome. Throughout the film, Larry harasses Ronnie and his mother, precipitating the film’s unsettling conclusion.
Theological issues abound in this film, but May’s advice to Ronnie might be the best place from which to start such a discussion. In one of her attempts to encourage her son, a convicted sex offender mind you, she tells him, “You’re a miracle Ronnie…we’re all miracles. You know why? Because as humans, every day we go about our business, and all that time we know—we all know, that the things we love, the people we love—at any time it can all be taken away…we live knowing that, and we keep going anyway.” As life affirming as May’s advice may be, rarely is the human experience ever so simple. Though we may “keep going anyway,” we are still faced with the question of how we will persevere. Will we live in faith or fear? Will this “truth” scare us to death or inspire us to a life of faithful service to God and humanity? Unfortunately, as is often the case in the real world, most of the film’s characters, if not all of them, react in fear.
Again, it is this fear that Fields so miraculously captures in his film, especially with his inclusion of the newscast in which concerned citizens express their apprehension, fear, and disgust over Ronnie’s return to the neighborhood. This opening influences, in part, the way we view the rest of the film. The three “soccer moms” who frequent the neighborhood park recommend castrating Ronnie while Larry seems to wish for an even harsher punishment. Yet as we see, these characters that represent the larger neighborhood are flawed as well, to say the least. Mick LaSalle of The San Francisco Chronicle picks up on this hypocrisy: “The point Little Children makes is that, without the external threat, people would be forced to look inward.” Thus, on one level, this film becomes another example of Jesus’ parable to mind the log in our own eye before tending to the log in our neighbor’s.
Fields not only captures the sense of fear this community feels, but also harnesses the emotional and spiritual emptiness that often accompanies material success. Make no mistake, fear accompanies this emptiness as well, especially the fear that at any moment, as May reminds us, it can all disappear. Brad and Sarah’s inability to ultimately run away together hints at their unwillingness to leave behind their lives of financial comfort, as unfulfilling as they may be. Brad and Sarah maintain a healthy awareness of Ronnie’s presence in the community, but their reactions are not nearly as vehement as their neighbors’.
Haley gives a truly powerful performance as Ronnie, one that perhaps deserved the Supporting Actor Oscar. This character also adds difficult spiritual and theological questions to the film. Unlike any of the other characters, Ronnie makes an excruciating self-sacrifice in order to ensure himself, his mother, and the community that he can exist as a “good boy” in the community. Ronnie’s presence in this film forces us to not only examine issues of sexual deviancy and the presence of sex offenders in our community, but to consider our responses to these issues and how they do or do not reflect Godly love and forgiveness.
Little Children raises other questions for consideration as well: does May’s description of humans as miraculous fully describe what it means to be human? Are these characters’ flaws miraculous or something different? Of what are we afraid? How can we address these fears? In the end, Little Children calls into question the ways in which communities treat “the other.” It warns against the vacuity of material success and thus recognizes the importance of meaningful relationships and faithfulness to one’s identity. Yet fear touches on all of these issues, and surely where fear exists, our souls are restless, and we all become like little children.