Among the most distinctive visions on display at this year’s New Directors/New Films program, Eric Mendelsohn’s first film since 1999’s Judy Berlin suggests Little Children as helmed by a nature documentarian. But in spite of the obsessive fixation on leaves and the menacing blare of the sun, Mendelsohn skirts naturalism, treating the life of his characters as artifice. The sounds of a melancholic flute, sometimes the screeching of crickets, dominate the persistent soundtrack, accentuating the already storybook tenor of the film. The characters are obsessed with time and speak in abstractions, their faces sometimes hard to see, and rarely does anyone leave the periphery of their doll-like homes, and when they do, it’s ethereally, some spilling in and out of bushes like rabbits; a conspicuous emphasis is placed on borders, whether manmade or of nature’s construction, and so locations come to resemble pushed-together dioramas. Welcome to Long Island as Alice in Wonderland.
Characters—their personalities, their good intentions and bad habits—collide in unexpected, sometimes fascinating ways throughout the film’s three stories, whose only kinship really is the lens flare that Mendelsohn happily embraces. A housewife and amateur painter (Edie Falco) volunteers to take a celebrity (Embeth Davitz) renting a room nearby to the local ferry, but tensions flare when the former’s selfish agenda rises to the surface. Having missed her school bus, a little girl (Rachel Resheff) traverses backyards on her way to school, stumbling upon a woman’s lost poodle, then a man (Wesley Boulik) whacking off inside a shed to a nudie magazine, a series of dog collars hanging above his head. And elsewhere, a businessman (Elias Koteas) attempts to leave town after a fight with his wife, but a series of mishaps keeps him stranded, leading him repeatedly to a mysterious woman in a blue dress (Danai Gurira) desperately looking for a job.
Mendelshon has a gift for subtly sketching his character’s moral attributes, and the specificity of some of the film’s scenes can be arresting, as in the businessman sympathizing with the woman in the blue dress not out of any sort of white guilt but because of the coarse manner in which a diner owner dismisses her after seconds earlier hiring her to waitress at his establishment. It’s the only time she doesn’t crack a smile, and even though she was just humiliated and told that her cup of java is on the house, she still leaves a tip, a gesture that clearly breaks the businessman’s heart. It doesn’t hurt that the specificity and intuitiveness of Mendelshon’s writing is matched by the remarkable emotional honesty of his actors: Having lost her mother’s birthday bracelet sometime during her trip to school, the girl rides home at the end of the day, pushing the sleeve of her sweater over her wrist in shame—as if anyone could see her, let alone knows what she did.
And yet these two stories never really cohere. Though the little girl’s encounters with the possible dog-killing pervert are interestingly colored by her naïvete, and the scenes never salaciously play on the audience’s fears, the episode still comes down to nothing more and nothing less than a chronicle of a close call. And though all we really glean of the businessman’s troubles at home is that he and his wife are struggling with money, that his (non-)encounters with the more down-and-out waitress somehow knocks some sense into him feels more than a little pat. If the little girl and businessman’s sojourns remain at all interesting from beginning to end, it’s because Mendelsohn’s dissonantly harmonic style, though somewhat of a crutch, still casts a unique spell.
Only the effusive housewife and withholding actress’s absurdly nerve-jangling trip to the ferry feels like an unqualified success, a keen study of the relationship between celebrity and spectator, the real and the performed. Though the actress is clearly going through an emotional crisis, the details of which she obviously doesn’t wish to share with a complete stranger, the stranger nonetheless feels entitled to the woman’s secrets. Throughout their excursion, a wrench is constantly thrown at the audience’s allegiance to one or the other woman as Davitz and an especially remarkable Falco astutely convey their character’s presumptions and expectations of the other. Their journey is essentially one toward a dead end, as their behaviors reveal them to be fundamentally unable to relate to one another on any other level beyond celebrity and fan, and their storyline ends on a fascinatingly messy open note that manages to be more illuminating than Mendelsohn’s transfixingly weird but often distractingly beside-the-point aesthetic mode.