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In suburbia, you live by the rules. Those who don’t are alienated. We have seen this in films such as American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, whose characters struggle to reconcile the lives they live with the lives they had imagined, making choices that isolate them from their families and neighbors.

Little Children contains similar themes of suburban discontent that unravels lives when it rises to the surface after the characters have tried to hide it for years. During a heat wave one summer, a small town is rocked by a dangerous love affair and by the return of a pedophile out of prison, events which break unwritten rules and force the town’s inhabitants to reconsider their own lives and how they see others.

Sarah (Kate Winslet) and Brad (Patrick Wilson), an unhappily married anthropologist and a stay-at-home dad, find mutual understanding in each other after they share a spontaneous kiss in the park. Sarah isn’t as beautiful as his wife (Jennifer Connelly), Brad concedes, yet he finds something alluring in her. Sarah becomes the object of scrutiny and gossip among the other women, but she realizes that her own happiness is more important than conformity to societal expectations.

In a contrived yet somewhat effective way, Sarah’s struggles and choices are elucidated when she joins the neighborhood book club and reads Madame Bovary. At the discussion, Sarah defends Madame Bovary most vehemently, seeing in the character many of her own life’s experiences: “When I read it in grad school, Madame Bovary just seemed like a fool. She marries the wrong man, makes one foolish mistake after another; but when I read it this time, I just fell in love with her. She’s trapped! She has a choice: she can either accept a life of misery or she can struggle against it. And she chooses to struggle.”

With this, Sarah justifies her own struggle, seeing “something beautiful and even heroic in her rebellion.” Yet the film focuses on more than Sarah’s rebellion; it also follows the life of a pedophile, Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), after he is released from prison and moves back to the neighborhood. He is immediately ostracized from his neighbors; his property is vandalized, he receives insults, even death threats. His mother is all he has, and she tells Ronnie that he’s a miracle – all humans are miracles because we live knowing that the people we love can be taken away from us at any time.

All of the characters have something in common; as Sarah puts it, “It’s the hunger. The hunger for an alternative, and the refusal to accept a life of unhappiness.” Using flawed and restless characters, Little Children shows that almost all of the town’s inhabitants have their own dark secrets that they would do anything to hide. But the nature of life in a small town is that you end up running into your demons no matter where you go.

The highlight of the film is the ending, when the characters finally face these demons and the multiple storylines are linked. The ending is also one of the finest examples of catharsis in recent film. This emotional cleansing, set against the backdrop of an artificial suburban neighborhood and the rebellion against it, makes for an honest, sophisticated, and ultimately important film.



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