Well, I finally rented the DVD, and well, wow. Talk about a feel-bad movie where no one is really admirable, and you can’t exactly identify with any of the characters, or if you could, you wouldn’t want to face that fact.
Sarah, played by Kate Winslet, is a stay-at-home mother of a three-year old daughter. Sarah is alienated from the other moms, but it isn’t clear whether she can’t fit in, or whether she simply refuses to fit in. Not that fitting in is all that important. In fact, the movie first invites us to sympathize with Sarah’s ennui. It is only when she begins to act out her alienation by engaging in an affair with a stay-at-home dad, Brad, played by Patrick Wilson, that we begin to notice that she pretty much ignores her adorable daughter when she’s not using her as a prop in her affair with Brad.
Brad is also alienated, not from the other moms so much as from society. He can’t possibly fit in because he’s a man in a woman’s world. Like Sarah, we also begin the movie sympathizing with him. He has a successful wife (played by Jennifer Connelly), and yet he can’t seem to pass the bar exam. Only Sarah seems to understand that this failure may be indicative of his ambivalence about being a lawyer. What Sarah may not understand is that Brad’s ambivalence may go much deeper than just about being a lawyer; Brad may be ambivalent about anything that demands commitment. Brad can’t seem to commit even to his own dreams. Instead, life seems to blow him around, like a leaf on a gust of wind.
It’s painful to watch these two having sex while their children nap in a nearby room. It’s painful to see them throw their children together as “friends” simply because they like spending time together. But it’s really no different from what other parents do – moms whose children play together because the moms like each other. Moms who have tea in the living room while the kids play unsupervised in the back yard. It’s a matter of degree.
I knew that these two were not going to end up together. But I wasn’t sure how that was going to play out. Since the movie also included a side story about a convicted pedophile (played by Jackie Earle Haley) who moved into the neighborhood to live with his elderly mother, I thought that perhaps the affair would end with the death of either Sarah or Brad or one of their children at the hands of the pedophile. You know, punishment for their crimes. Consequences for their actions. But that’s not what Little Children is about.
What Little Children seems to be about is the way that desires come up against reality, the way that when we want things that are outside of the bounds of what we are allowed to have, ultimately, we hit a wall. The consequence of going after what we shouldn’t have in the first place is really beside the point; our suffering comes from wanting what we can’t have, what we are not allowed to have.
Apart from being the starkest example of the suffering that comes from wanting what is forbidden is in the story of the pedophile played by Jackie Earle Haley, it was hard to discern what exactly the pedophile was doing in the story at all. In my opinion, the whole pedophile story was merely a parallel to the central story, the relationship trajectory of Sarah and Brad. Where Sarah and Brad wanted and took what they wanted and ultimately reached a point where they could go no further, the pedophile wanted and took what he wanted and ultimately reached a point where he could go no further.
And that’s really the extent of the story. I think the implication is made that Brad will go right back to his life, with his hard-working, resentful wife, and his failure to become a lawyer and his essential love for his son. And Sarah will go back to her marriage, although she might actually repair her relationship with her daughter. The pedophile will survive his self-incflicted castration wounds and will live his life cut off from his desires.
One might surmise that what Little Children is trying to tell us is that in a landscape peppered with the landmines that are the limitations on what we can and cannot do, the path of least suffering is the path that takes us away from wanting what we cannot/should not have.