Children Playing in Hollywood

by: Judith Halberstam / University of Southern California

Little Children movie poster

Little Children movie poster

Todd Field’s Oscar nominated feature, Little Children, received rave reviews in 2006 for its careful depiction of the hopes and fears that nestle beneath the surface in suburban heterosexual America. In the film, a veneer of serene family life quickly gives way to reveal a shadow world replete with sexual menace and fascinating perversity. In fact, the promise of Little Children lies in its apparent commitment to exposing the hypocrisy of bourgeois suburban Christian morality. And, pedophilia serves, at the beginning of the film, as a marker for the witch-hunting propensities of white “neighborhood watch” societies and lets the viewer believe that the film’s narrative thrust involves a hard and long look at the inadequacies of heterosexual marriage and the lengths to which suburban heteros will go to find scapegoats for their own deep wells of loneliness.Little Children tells three interlocking stories: in the first, Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslett) sits apart from the other suburban mums at the local playground and marks her distance from their parochial and repressive enforcement of social norms. Pierce, as her name implies, can see through the judgmental stance of the mothers and unlike them, she is not afraid to admit to her dissatisfaction with marriage and motherhood. When an attractive stay at home dad, Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) appears at the playground, her interest is piqued. Sarah is unhappily married to an older man, Richard (Greg Edelman), who spends his spare time absorbed in internet porn. Again, as his name implies, Richard is purely and simply a dick and we are at a loss to understand why Sarah has married him. Brad Adamson, on the other hand, also carrying an allegorical name implying some kind of oedipalized masculinity, is a law student married to a cold and driven wife, and he is struggling to hold on to some fragment of his youth before disappearing into the career she has fantasized for him. Finally, in this suburban Greek drama, enter Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), an odd looking and shy middle-aged man, newly released from jail for pedophilia. Ronnie (notice the childish name) lives with his mother in a dark house full of childhood dolls and miniatures and he is persecuted by a neighborhood cop who retired under suspicious circumstances and who now makes it his duty to spy on McGorvey and warn the neighborhood against him.

Critics like A.O. Scott in the NYT and Carina Chocano in the LA Times were wild about this film and praised it for the beautiful camera work, the melding of menace to coziness in its sunny settings and the subtle and intelligent dissection of suburban dysfunction. The film, however, is actually a strangely crude and ultimately hateful confirmation of the very same moral structures that it seems at first to be critiquing. To my mind this weird cycle by which the very conditions of unhappiness at the start of the film become the resolution at the end, the diagnosis becomes the cure, is representative of the narrative code of many liberal Hollywood films, like American Beauty for example, and it allows very conservative cultural texts about sexuality and domesticity to pose as radical and alternative ones.

Let’s see how Little Children manages to sneak normativity into the plot as resolution for the problem of the community enforcement of …normativity! The schema of the film works almost off a blueprint for psychoanalytic family structure: Sarah does not want to be a mother to her daughter and her husband does not want to be a husband to his wife. She fails to be mother, he fails to be father and in fact, in their first encounter in the film, she catches him masturbating in his study setting her up as the castrating mother to the naughty auto-erotic son. Brad does not want to be a father to his son but would rather remain a son (Adamson) and he watches teenage boys skateboarding in the evening when he should be studying, longing for the freedom implied by their flights through space and time. Ronnie cannot transition from being son to his mother to being a husband to an adult woman (as we witness in a painful date scene) and he regresses into boyhood as soon as he re-enters his mother’s house. Seemingly, the problem here is heterosexuality writ large with its imprisoning structures of normative gender and its suffocating modes of domesticity. People get married for all the wrong reasons, the film implies, and the society insists that they replace their parents by becoming them.

Brad and Sarah at the pool

Brad and Sarah at the pool

And the first half of the film does indeed begin to unravel the social compulsion to conform, externally enforced and internally incorporated, that produces judgment, anxiety, fear and desire as its monstrous byproducts. The scene at the neighborhood pool, where Sarah and Brad are bathing in the sunlight of their newly ignited desire and where poor Ronnie is pegged as a predatory pervert and treated like a shark in the water, dramatizes the collision between fear and normativity that produces both the pervert and the conditions of his desire. But all of the tension of that scene, all of the criticism that it directs at the moralistic parents who use the notion of protecting their children as an alibi for outrageous behavior, disappears instantly when the cautious sympathy that the viewer has developed for Ronnie is erased by the revelation that he is not a suspected pedophile who is being unfairly treated but a real pedophile who also hates adult women and deserves our contempt and the violence of his neighbors.

Ronnie and his mother

Ronnie and his mother

Ronnie’s descent from wronged innocent to hideous pervert is matched in the film by the shift of sympathies away from the adulterous duo, Sarah and Brad, and towards the happy families that these infidels have disrupted. The porno obsessed Dick and the frigid Kathy suddenly seem like tragic victims of the selfishness and greed of their dysfunctional and adulterous spouses. While Sarah and Brad were the victims of their marriages when the film began, at its denouement the film refuses to make them the heroes of their adultery. So, if adultery is not the escape and the cure for a bad marriage, what is? Apparently, returning to the bad marriage is the only answer that the film can offer, oh and “grow up.”In the film’s crazed resolution, Sarah and Brad have decided to run away together. Sarah goes to wait for Brad in the playground and we see her willfully say goodbye to her daughter, choosing sex over family, desire over nurturing, her own happiness over the child’s. Brad leaves his home too but stops on the way to the playground to watch the skateboarders. In the meantime, who should enter the playground but our abject third, the perpetual outsider, the inhuman pervert against whose desires, Sarah and Brad and their spouses all seem pure, of course, Ronnie. Ronnie, we think, wants to hurt Sarah and a tragedy seems to be in the making. But no, goodness and truth, thank God, win out over perversity and evil and so while Brad hurts himself in the skateboard park trying a stunt for which he is too old, Sarah witnesses the self-castration of Ronnie. He looks up at her from the bench upon which he sits, lifts his hands from his crotch and reveals a bloody mess and a knife. Could anything be more blatantly Freudian than this diagnostic manual ending? The man who still thinks he is a boy falls off his skateboard and hits his head, when he comes to he realizes he loves his wife and in that moment he becomes a man. The woman who wants to be a daughter rather than a mother sees in Ronnie the disasterous results of poor parenting and rushes home to her child and her porno husband. The poor pervert who cannot become a man and wants to harm children serves as a warning to all who stray even a little way from the domestic lair in suburbia: if you cannot grow up and reproduce a replica of your parents’ home, his character implies, you will do horrible things to innocent people. And if you cannot control your impulses, you must be castrated.

Sarah and her child

Sarah and her child

The plot summary I have given here surely does not sound like the same film that critics hailed as “quietly devastating” (Peter Travers) and “intelligent” (A.O. Scott). And yet, I have not embellished the plot, its conceits or its imagined solutions to the problems introduced by each character. Why would critics see this sophomoric understanding of desire and domesticity as complex, intricate and subtle? And why raise the topic of pedophilia as a way of discussing suburban witch hunts only to transform it into a trope for what is wrong with suburban heteronormativity? In the end, we are asked to believe, there is nothing wrong with the family, nothing faulty about hetero marriage, the only problem in suburbia is indeed the lurking pervert who wants to harm you and your children. In a security age, perhaps, we cater to existing fears and we are complicit in creating new ones all so that, apparently, in the end all we can ask is that the state protect us from the very thing that it has manufactured as the cause of our alarm.

Image Credits:
1. Little Children movie poster
2. Brad and Sarah at the pool
3. Ronnie and his mother
4. Sarah and her child

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