GOD IS IN THE DETAILS
Voiceover narration is a powerful tool when it’s used in filmmaking. Usually the voice is that of the lead character (as in The Pursuit of Happyness) looking back at some difficult point in his life from a more comfortable place. Even Sunset Boulevard can be interpreted this way despite the fact that the main character is narrating from the grave, because life after death can be seen as being more comfortable than his struggles in and around Hollywood (it’s a stretch, sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true).
Much more rare is the “omniscient” narrator, the voice of God (aka the author). This is when some respectable voice tells the audience bits of information that the characters either don’t know or aren’t telling the other characters. In one sense, it violates the “show, don’t tell” dictum that’s taught in all screenwriting books (along with “don’t rely on narration”), but rules are meant to be broken and what it really does is mimic storytelling devices found in short stories, giving a more literary tone to the piece.
The secret to effective voiceover narration is the realization that, just because the narrator isn’t seen onscreen, that doesn’t mean he isn’t a character in the story.
In Little Children, the (uncredited) character of the narrator is played by Will Lyman, an actor who is the voice of Frontline and many other PBS documentaries. He’s a great choice, recognizable on a subconscious level and full of trustworthy gravitas. In Little Children, his is the voice of the author, the one who knows everything about everything that is happening in this wealthy suburban town.
If it’s the flaws of characters that make them interesting, the flaw of the narrator is that he is fixated on people who are living unhappy, unfulfilled lives. He (and by extension the author) must be profoundly unhappy with his own life if he is drawn only to those who are leading lives of quiet, and sometimes not-so-quiet, desperation. It’s telling that one of the most sympathetic characters in the film is that of Ronald James McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), the pedophile who can’t control his impulses as much as he’d like to. You can’t tell me that there aren’t any happy people in this town, but those who profess to be happy are treated by disdain by this narrator. I’m speaking of the other housewives, who through this filter are shown as caricatures of suburban bliss, full of longing for what they can’t have and a happiness with being part of the status quo.
Only a self-hating narrator like this one would idolize the adulterous relationship between Sarah (Kate Winslet) and Brad (Patrick Wilson). She’s given a pass because her husband has become addicted to porn, and he’s given a pass because his wife (who comes from money and makes documentaries for PBS) supports him every time he fails the Bar Exam. Their illicit affair is described as a means to “live life” while everybody else is dead inside.
The other big theme in the movie, aside from doing whatever it takes to “feel alive,” is nostalgia. The reason everybody is unhappy is because they’re stuck in the past. The theme is most explicit with Ronald the pedophile, who lives with his mother in a house full of clocks and Hummel figurines for whom time never progresses. Brad also lives in the past, stuck watching high schoolers on skateboards instead of studying for the Bar, and who was a high school sports hero before becoming an academic failure. Sarah apparently longs for the days when she wasn’t tied down with family.
Of course, like most self-righteous and egocentric characters, the narrator doesn’t see his own flaws. He feels he’s describing life as it is. But if that were really the case, then Little Children would be little more than a simple dis of suburban living, similar to those stories of cheating housewives that popped up in fiction back in the ’50s, during the first expansive growth of the suburbs. And Little Children is more than that, isn’t it?