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Little Children 

Mark Palermo suffers the little children.

Little Children is about shame and righteousness, members of a small-town community using their moral indignation to cover their own dark secrets. It’s a view of suburban life, inhabited by hypocritical, sexually corrupt simpletons, of which I’m tired.

Remarkably, Little Children’s generalizations don’t extend to its treatment of core characters. Director Todd Field views his subjects with a dimensionality that avoids easy political demonizing. It’s just their surroundings and customs that are cut too neatly.

The film is occasionally interrupted by a voice that informs viewers of characters’ thoughts and the weather conditions. It’s a clever way of transposing the quality of Tom Perrotta’s novel to screen. But it also has Field assuming the position of a god-like figure looking down on his subjects. Some- times his patronizing feels part of a predictable hopelessness—as though the terrific performances of Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Haley and Gregg Edelman are portrayals of people doomed by their programming.

The difference is Field cuts far enough beneath the surface to not preclude their actions from forgiveness. Winslet stars as housewife Sarah, who begins an illicit affair with Brad (Wilson), a married father she meets at the park. Sarah treats her daughter as a burden, while Brad fears adulthood—he escapes by watching teens at a skate park. Their infidelity is juxtaposed with the story of convicted flasher Ronnie (Haley), a target of the locals’ rage.

Field’s best scene has Ronnie jumping in a public swimming pool as concerned parents rush their kids out of the water. It’s Jaws crossed with the floating chocolate bar panic in Caddyshack. Field obscures how we’re to respond with underwater lower body shots of kids wading. The perceived danger of a sexual predator is heightened by the camera’s perspective and the viewer’s prejudice.

Little Children’s stone-cold suburbia reaches for Kubrick, but is also half Spielberg. The combination is far different than AI, but even when Field goes wrong, this film has the grip of compelling drama.

The Messengers

J-horror, a term for Japanese movies about mute ghost children with staring problems, finds a peculiar match in The Messengers. The American product is not a remake of a Japanese film, but its ambiguity, slow pacing and ghost-child lore fit with The Grudge, The Ring and Dark Water. Like those movies, its single, muted tone means it’s absolutely humourless. But the movie works better than its predecessors because The Messengers’ single-mindedness is built on a couple of strong elements.

Shot in Saskatchewan, the film’s location, an old farmhouse, has an eerie, isolated prettiness. The Solomons, seeking a new beginning for troubled daughter Jess (Kristen Stewart), move into the haunted house. Directors the Pang Brothers (some of The Messengers was reshot, uncredited, by Eduardo Rodriguez) craft suspense by pitching characters helplessly in their surroundings.

The Messengers stays interesting by not providing too much information before the final reveal. There’s a substantial plot element that I’m not clear on. This is on par for Asian films not explaining everything. This respect for the sensory experience of genre over literalism and plausibility is to be appreciated. However, although The Messengers stands above its ilk, the filmmakers work with too limited a tone and too restrained a sense of exploration to bring it to life.

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