In ‘Little Children,’ Parents Who Never Grew Up

It’s already been a pretty good year for Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa. The producers, who have teamed up in the past to put together important independent films such as “Election” (1999), “The Ice Harvest” (2005) and “Bee Season” (2005), as well as Anthony Minghella’s big studio epic “Cold Mountain” (2003), were the main production duo behind “Little Miss Sunshine,” the quirky road movie with a heart that became this year’s runaway sleeper hit (it just closed in town two weeks ago after a record-breaking 13-week run).

Now the dynamic duo is back with what may turn out to be the year’s most under-performing film: After six weeks in limited release, the box office for “Little Children” is dropping at a clip of 20% per week, despite remaining in only 32 select theaters. The film – which is scheduled to open in town this weekend, barring another delay due to its disappointing numbers – is the first directorial effort from actor-turned-writer/director Todd Field since 2001’s brilliantly disturbing small-town drama “In the Bedroom.” That movie garnered Oscar nominations for Field for best picture and screenplay and acting nods for Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek and Marisa Tomei. “Little Children” deserves the same sort of accolades.

Field, who co-wrote the screenplay with the novel’s author, Tom Perrotta (who also wrote “Election”), has created a truly literary drama that yet still rings remarkably true in its keen observations of the banality of everyday suburban life. The title refers not just to the small charges that populate the playgrounds and pools of the suburban Massachusetts town, but the arrested development and unbridled previously checked passions of the adults in the town. Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson excel as the psychologically spurned parents who more-or-less accidentally begin an affair – Winslet deserves yet another Academy Award nomination for her depth and range in the role – while the town reels from the return of a paroled sex offender named Ronny in their midst. In the clever context, Ronny’s sensitive relationship with his mother makes him a more sympathetic character than the hypocritical mothers and overwrought ex-cop who terrorize him.

Field, exhibiting both a perceptive eye and a remarkable restraint, does a brilliant job of helping us to identify with their faults, their desires and even their judgments in a deep, ultimately dark story that is not so removed from our own lives, and thus simultaneously allows us to enjoy the events while quietly examining ourselves.

Following are a few excerpts from an onstage interview conducted with the producers following a recent Cinema Society preview screening.

Q. What attracted you to this material?

A. Yerxa: Tom writes about the weird self-delusions, the contradictions of American culture in various places. The move to suburbia (for the character) was to give some kind of genteel meaning to life but now that they have material and emotional satisfaction, their life is still empty. So the smallest thing – one person released from prison for indecent exposure, or Brad (Wilson’s character) showing up at the (playground) – can be a catalyst to have the social fabric fall apart. There’s a serious idea of what really glues people together and how fragile it is.

Was it daunting to have a pedophile as a central character?

Yerxa: Not really because that character has been on screen quite a bit. But this relationship of Ronny and his mother seemed unique and compelling. The film isn’t about the child molester; it just allows everyone to go into a Salem witch hunt (mode). It’s just one of three or four compelling stories.

How did the novel change in the adaptation?

Berger: Mainly in the addition of a narrator. Todd early on wanted to explore (keeping) Tom’s voice (from the novel). The author gets into each of the character’s heads. (The way it turned out) was almost like the Cronkite of our times; there’s something very reassuring and authoritative about his voice. Tom has mentioned that it almost creates a multi-generation aspect: the kids and the parents and above it all, big daddy.

How do you two choose projects together?

Yerxa: (All of our films) are very much about the social texture. We don’t do musicals, broad comedies or science fiction. What we mainly do is ten percent of the kind of movies that get made. All have this social basis. Even the comedies have a serious idea. The biggest anomaly is “Cold Mountain,” a high-budget period film with big stars, and elaborate production. But even that had (the theme of) the country being torn apart. They all seem to have some sense of the American social scene being pulled at both ends and there’s going to be a break, a snap, a collision of some sort. All these things are happening but they’re not going to hold together because underneath there’s something that’s substantially contradictory.

Berger: We find ourselves attracted to material that’s left of center but hopefully within the studio framework. We look for material that we personally connect to. We’ve been fortunate to be in the studio system and yet not have any of our films lose its voice. I guess we’re due for a showdown or a breakdown…. Our next project with Alexander Payne is not “Nebraska,” because he didn’t want to do three road movies in a row (after “About Schmidt” and “Sideways”), so he’s going to do a bigger budget film and then come back to “Nebraska.”

Making Good

After a rather pallid year for G and PG movies, the studios are finally making good animation-wise as Oscars season approaches. “Flushed Away” is frothy, frivolous fun, and “Happy Feet” has also garnered strong early reviews from critics. “Happy Feet,” the latest film from “Babe” director George Miller, opens this weekend and features the voices of Robin Williams, Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Elijah Wood and the late Steve “Crocodile Hunter” Irwin as dance-happy Emperor penguins, plus choreography by Savion Glover. Don’t hesitate to bundle up the gang and head for the cinemas to see either of these fine flicks.

One-shots

The fact that he penned “Thank You for Smoking” – which director Jason Reitman turned into one of the year’s funniest and most incisive films – is reason enough to hear Christopher Buckley speak in person. Then there are the other 10 novels, including this year’s “Florence of Arabia” – which skewers the Middle East and feminism – plus numerous articles, essays and other bits of political satire. Add the fact that Buckley’s November 19 appearance at UCSB comes hot on the heels of the recent mid-term elections, and this is one local lecture that’s a must-hear.

Also at UCSB: The documentary film “The War Tapes,” the first war movie filmed in Iraq entirely by U.S. soldiers. Troops used cameras mounted on gun turrets, dashboards, helmets and vets to capture footage exhibiting the reality of the nitty-gritty of the hand-to-hand conflict for those who are actually fighting the war. Along with battles and brutal sequences, the film also displays the camaraderie and humor among the soldiers fighting in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Screens Monday, November 20.