Little Miss Sunshine
Produced by Big Beach Films
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Screenplay by Michael Arndt
Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures

Little Children
Produced and distributed by New Line Cinema
Directed by Todd Field
Screenplay by Tom Perrotta and Todd Field

Allow me to introduce the Squirm Index.  For a while now, I have been looking for an alternative to the overly elastic rating system used by the Motion Picture Association of America, which has, for 39 years, been trying to quantify what constitutes acceptable fare for our viewing entertainment.  Can we abide one nipple for a PG-13?  Two for an R?  How many f-words add up to an NC-17?  Does decapitation rate a PG or PG-13 if there’s no accompanying geyser of blood?  Slippery questions all, but I think the Squirm Index may yield answers.  Here’s how it works: Whether a film is acceptable will henceforth be determined by how likely it is to make you squirm should you watch it with a family member by your side.  How comfortable would you be watching, say, Kinsey with your parents?  With your teenagers?  If you’re a guy, do you want to take your sister to Y Tu Mamá También?  And what about the American Pie series?  Does anyone want to see any of its installments with any other mortal?  Or, for that matter, alone?

In short, if a film is likely to make you squirm while watching it with your close relations, it’s fair to say it has stepped out of bounds.

Two recent films illustrate my case.  Each is a “small, independent” film that has won kudos from most mainstream reviewers and is now, having been nominated for an Academy Award or two, enjoying an extended run.  Little Miss Sunshine and Little Children are both well made, strongly acted, and adroitly filmed works.  Yet each sets off the Squirm Alarm.

Let’s start with Little Miss Sunshine.  This Sundance winner has been hailed as a witty, satiric comedy with enough poignant uplift to melt the stoniest heart.  Watching it, however, I felt my own pump freeze at its calculating tastelessness.  Husband-and-wife filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, along with their screenwriter, Michael Arndt, seem to think crude vulgarity is the same thing as heartwarming humor.

The film starts out skewering some of the stranger fixations of our popular culture.  We meet a deeply weird and fractious family whose members are variously caught up with self-empowerment programs, academic careerism, new-age childrearing, and tiny-tot beauty contests.  The script ingeniously crams all of their lunacy into a Volkswagen van and sends the family careering down the blue highways of the American Southwest to bring Olive, their youngest member, to a beauty pageant in San Diego.  Good premise, I thought, as the film got under way.  But things soon turned unforgivably sour.  As the grandfather of this brood, Alan Arkin plays Frank Hoover, a heroin-sniffing, sex-crazed geezer who takes advantage of the road trip to advise his 15-year-old grandson, Dwayne (Paul Dano): “Listen to me, I got no reason to lie to you, don’t make the same mistakes I made when I was young.  F–k a lotta women, kid; not just one woman, a lotta women.”  Somehow, I couldn’t find it in me to chuckle at this outré counsel.  Instead of hugging me to its cinematic heart, I’m afraid the line threw me out of the film’s fictional frame altogether.  I didn’t take offense at Frank, the character, who is, after all, whacked on smack and scabrously senile to boot.  But I couldn’t help wondering why Arkin, an esteemed actor with some clout, didn’t take more ownership of his character and suggest that it was inadvisable for him to say this to his grandson, especially in the presence of his granddaughter, Little Miss Sunshine herself (played by seven-year-old actress Amy Breslin).  Doesn’t the protection of minors trump aesthetic license?  Then again, the Squirm Factor apparently didn’t bother the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: They awarded Arkin with an Oscar for his four-letter performance.

Later, it transpires that the girl’s parents have put crazy Frank in charge of choreographing the girl for her dance recital.  Only in the pageant’s climactic talent contest do we finally see the results.  Olive is made to behave in a manner congenial to what we must suppose is her grandfather’s preferred sort of woman.  Her recital is a classic bump-and-grind striptease.  How sweet!  Of course, the hypocrites running the pageant are horrified.  Not to worry: Little Olive’s ecdysiast display brings the formerly fractured family together.  In a touching conclusion, all the family members climb onto the stage to twist and thrust their pelvises vigorously along with Olive.  Who said American filmmakers lack family values?

Little Children is another and much better satire, but it also tops out the Squirm Index.  Based on Tom Perrotta’s novel, the film boasts some fine performances designed to ask a question pressing on many minds: “How would Madame Bovary fare in today’s American suburbia?”  (I would have thought we already had our answer, given America’s high incidence of Bovaryism, but perhaps those endless reports of adultery are just hype to get us to watch Desperate Housewives.)  Sarah (Kate Winslet) is a bored young mother whose husband is more interested in internet pornography than in her, which may explain why she feels her daughter a burden and longs for some kind of “fulfillment.”  At the playground, she sits apart from the other young moms, the better to despise their petit bourgeois preoccupations.  As they gossip about neighbors and real-estate values, she likes to imagine she’s an anthropologist studying the absurd female habits of an especially backward tribe.  Her contempt is confirmed when one of the women recounts an episode in her domestic sex life.  She was so tired the night before that she fell asleep while paying the marriage debt.  A clear case of coitus somnolentus.  Confessing this to her hubby afterward, he didn’t complain.  Why would he?  He hadn’t even noticed.

What Sarah finds most rankling about her neighbors is their ridiculous reaction to the man they have dubbed the Prom King (Patrick Wilson), a good-looking hunk who brings his three-year-old son to the park daily.  They are at once scandalized and intrigued to see a man not working on weekdays, and they cannot help wondering about his availability.  Is he divorced?  Widowed?  Not that any of them would actually do anything about it if he were unattached.  For his part, the very married Prom King, whose name is Brad, keeps to himself and is entirely oblivious to their girlish interest in him.  Then, one of the young matrons gets an idea.  She bets the haughty Sarah that she wouldn’t be daring enough to get his telephone number.  To put the housewives in their place, Sarah sees the bet and raises it.  After chatting Brad up out of the gals’ earshot, she informs him of the wager and suggests they really shock the biddies by kissing.  Brad chuckles and plays along.  The kiss, however, turns out to be more than either had bargained for.  In subsequent meetings at the playground and the town pool, they inch not so slowly toward what seems to both an inevitable affair.  When Brad drives her home during a thunderstorm with their kids in tow, she invites him into her house.  While she puts the tots to bed, he finds a poetry anthology in the living room in which she has underlined the opening line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 147, “My love is a fever.”  That’s cue enough for him.  He takes her not so unaware in the laundry room where she has gone to wash the children’s clothes.

As the chronicler of self-delusion, Per-rot-ta uses the sonnet to make his point.  Sarah and Brad either ignore the rest of the poem or are too smitten to understand it, for the speaker goes on to compare his passion to a disease.  He is

. . . longing still

For that which longer nurseth the disease,

Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill. . . .

My thoughts and my discourse as mad men’s are . . .

For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,

Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

While Sarah and Brad like to think of themselves caught up in a vibrant passion bigger than both of them, the narrative makes it abundantly clear that their behavior is childishly willful and more than a little deranged.  Each has fastened on extracurricular desire as a refuge from domestic problems.  Sarah has married an entirely unsuitable older man on the rebound from several alliances, including a lesbian dalliance that left her confused and ashamed.  She sought to escape self-doubt through marriage.  Brad is a former jock who has never outgrown his youthful success on the football field.  Goaded by his ambitious wife, he managed to finish law school but has failed the bar exam twice.  He has become a stay-at-home dad, taking care of his son by day while his wife works to support the household.  At night, he’s supposed to be studying for his next bar trial—but he can’t keep his mind on his books and, worse, has growing doubts about wanting to be a lawyer at all.  In short, Sarah and Brad think they are falling in love when they are really seeking the all-American palliative, self-esteem, in the fever-heat generated by their adulterous embraces.  Rejecting adult responsibility, they become the little children of the title.

When her book club reads Madame Bovary, Sarah remarks that, in college, she had been taught to think the novel an example of misogynist ideology, which depicted Emma Bovary as a helpless woman ensnared by her romantic illusions.  Now, however, she thinks Emma beautiful and heroic, a rebel against the dreary compromises of adulthood.  With Sarah’s changing literary assessment, Per-rot-ta reminds us that great books read their readers, and what Flaubert’s novel reads in Sarah is her foolish pride.  She sees what she wants to see.  “I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright, / Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.”

So far so good.  Now, for the Squirm Quotient.  Director Todd Field has found it necessary to show us Miss Winslet and Mr. Patrick repeatedly in sessions of fully naked congress.  One wonders why.  A couch clinch followed by a fade away would have done the trick quite as well.  Of course, financial calculation may have been Field’s motive—this and Miss Winslet’s well-known penchant for flashing her breasts.  Sex, especially explicit sex, sells.  But how much does it sell?  There’s good evidence that it also keeps people away.  I know many who rarely go to the movies, not wanting to be assaulted by bare bods and raw gore.  The same goes for watching films on television, with the added disincentive of not wanting to squirm alongside their loved ones.  Had Field displayed a little restraint rather than a lot of skin, these people might be able to watch Perrotta’s essentially moral tale and later discuss its issues with their friends and family members.  The Squirm Factor, however, makes this quite unlikely.  Too bad Field didn’t follow Alexander Payne’s lead.  In translating Perrotta’s earlier satire, Election, to the screen, Payne managed to deal with its deluded adulterers without bringing their shenanigans into the street and scaring the horses.

All in all, there’s something to be said for censorship.  In the past, it exerted a pressure that was aesthetically useful.  When artists in any medium meet with resistance, they must find more creative ways to express themselves.  Take Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), in which Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray play adulterous characters who cannot keep their hands off each other.  As they embrace on a divan in MacMurray’s apartment, the camera pulls back slowly, and there’s a cut to MacMurray narrating his story into a Dictaphone a few months later.  After he explains what was on his mind as he hugged Stanwyck, the film cuts back to the earlier scene.  We understand some time has elapsed, because MacMurray is now reclining at one end of the divan smoking a cigarette, while Stanwyck is at the other end applying her lipstick with the aid of her compact’s mirror.  Anyone over, say, 17 will instantly know what happened between the two shots.  Yet no one need squirm at the information.