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THE DIRECTOR'S CRAFT

Acting all grown up in a land of `Children'

Todd Field set out to tell a mature, literate tale. He's seen enough not to waste a `mind-blowing' opportunity.

January 21, 2007|Paul Cullum | Special to The Times

"DON'T age. Make sure you dress like you're 15 years old. Have grand sex until you're 80. And God forbid you should ever grow up or be serious-minded or have a discipline or pursuits, and think that somehow there is value in that."

Actor-turned-director Todd Field is sitting at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, excoriating perpetual youth culture, something his generation ushered into being, lived by the sword of and now seems to regret every day of its life -- not the least when trying to fashion serious entertainments. It's a resonant theme in Field's second feature, "Little Children," based on a novel by Tom Perrotta ("Election"), who co-wrote the script with Field. In this ensemble coming-of-age story, the characters are all old enough to know better.

Nominated for a slew of awards, including three (elusive) Golden Globes, and with potential Oscar interest come the announcements Tuesday, the film makes good on the promise exhibited in Field's first feature, 2001's brutal drama "In the Bedroom," based on an Andre Dubus short story, which pitted Tom Wilkinson against Sissy Spacek in a devious reimagining of "Macbeth." That film seemed to come out of nowhere to garner Oscar nominations for best actor, actress, adapted screenplay and picture.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday January 23, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
Todd Field: An article about "Little Children" director Todd Field in Sunday's Calendar section said that his previous film, 2001's "In the Bedroom," received Oscar nominations for best actor, actress, adapted screenplay and picture. It also earned a nomination for supporting actress Marisa Tomei. The article also described Jackie Earle Haley's character in "Little Children" as a convicted child molester. He was a sex offender.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 28, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Todd Field: An article about "Little Children" director Todd Field last Sunday said that his film "In the Bedroom" received Oscar nominations for best actor, actress, adapted screenplay and picture. It also earned a nomination for supporting actress Marisa Tomei. Also, the article described Jackie Earle Haley's character in "Little Children" as a convicted child molester. He was a sex offender.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 28, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Todd Field: An article about "Little Children" director Todd Field in the Jan. 21 Calendar section said his last film, 2001's "In the Bedroom," received Oscar nominations for best actor, actress, adapted screenplay and picture. It also earned a nomination for supporting actress Marisa Tomei. The article also described Jackie Earle Haley's character in "Little Children" as a convicted child molester. He was a sex offender.

By contrast, "Little Children," which opened to generally warm reviews and is being rolled out slowly, is what the 42-year-old Field, the father of three, terms "a satirical melodrama" -- he and Perrotta have leavened it with humor, given it an authoritative voice-over narration to keep it on the rails (by "Frontline's" Will Lyman, no less) and embellished it with moments of poetic precision that evince an actor's instinct for the telling detail. Kate Winslet (whom critics have singled out and Field calls indefatigable) applies her Pan-American accent to Sarah, a lapsed literary doctoral candidate whose suburban anthropology and postmodern rejection of the pleasures of the text have made her a walking target for an opportunistic strain of romanticism -- wearing "Madame Bovary" like a badge and hiding her lover's photo in a volume of Shakespeare's sonnets.

Her contemporaries -- "Angels in America's" Patrick Wilson as a prom king trapped in a distended adolescence, Jennifer Connelly as the distant wife he has recast as his mother and Noah Emmerich as a tarnished former cop and self-appointed hall monitor to this suburban redoubt -- all cling to the last vestiges of what might kindly still be referred to as youth, out of a fear of the alternative.

This is exacerbated by the sudden presence of a convicted child molester in their midst -- child star Jackie Earle Haley ("The Bad News Bears," "Breaking Away"), returning to films after a 13-year hiatus -- presumably a threat to the nominal little children in their community. As such, the film comes off as a benign, more forgiving version of Todd Solondz's "Happiness," one less intent on punishing its audience than allowing its protagonists a benediction of momentary grace.

"There are two things I didn't want referenced: Todd Solondz and 'American Beauty,' " says Field. "My one hesitation in making this film is that it will be perceived as some kind of send-up of suburbia. I have no interest in doing that -- that field's been plowed for 50 years. I've lived in New York, I've lived in London and I live in the middle of nowhere now [rural Maine], and I just don't think it's that simple. I don't think there are those 'little people.' I don't buy that."

Instead, Field and his collaborator focused on what he terms "playground politics." (The film opens and closes on a neighborhood park, the final shot a haunting image straight out of Terrence Malick, save that instead of the lush foliage of the New World, it's rusted swings at night swirling in the breeze.)

Casually quoting Montaigne's admonition that "the play of children is not really play, but must be judged as their most serious actions," he reduces the complex interplay of social manners to an overlapping system of internecine judgments -- a virtual preschool with money -- that functions equally well as cultural commentary and as an allegory for current events.

"If we weren't groomed to be adolescents, we would be terrible consumers," says Field. "We'd be responsible with our money, we'd buy things that last, we'd insist on quality and we'd spend our time in pursuits that had meaning for us, rather than just plugging ourselves into the consumer engine. We're like catfish at the bottom of Hoover Dam with our mouths open, and our tails just get bigger and bigger.

"Which is also the state of our country right now. We're living in this really paranoid, anxious time where people are saying there are evildoers, let's go kill them, and where we're all terrified of not being accepted as whatever is proper in the culture.

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