In a small community where young mothers define themselves through their kids, unhappily married Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet, "Finding Neverland") and responsibility resistant Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson, "The Phantom of the Opera," "Hard Candy") drift into an affair just as the town is thrown into a turmoil by the return of child sex offender Ronald James McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley, "All the King's Men"). But it is not only the endangered innocents of small town suburbia who are "Little Children."
Cowriter (with novelist Tom Perrotta, "Election")/director Todd Fields ("In the Bedroom") shifts from the murky blackness of the human heart exposed by grief that he explored "In the Bedroom" to the unfocused self-centeredness of unformed yuppies with every bit as keen an instinct for what makes people tick. "Little Children" may at first seem less consequential than his debut film, but lingers on well after one has seen it, developing a richer and richer aftertaste.
The film is grounded by the sure-footed performance of Kate Winslet, whose Sarah is the literary hippie sticking out like a sore thumb amidst SUV driving former prom queens. Mary Ann (Mary B. McCann) clucks when Sarah forgets to bring her playground snacks yet again, and offers logical household tips that Sarah clearly has no use for. Sarah isn't comfortable being a mother, regarding her young daughter, Lucy (Sadie Goldstein), as some kind of inconvenient and unknowable being, but Lucy comes in handy when Brad appears, his own toddler, Aaron (Ty Simpkins), in tow. Mary Ann and Theresa (Trini Alvarado, 1994's "Little Women") are all aflutter over the return of the 'prom king,' a man who fuels their fantasy lives but who they haven't mustered up the nerve to actually converse with. Ever the rebellious one, Sarah makes a bet with Brad that doubles her ante and soon the two are having daily play dates at the community pool.
This is also where 'Ronnie' first makes his appearance, at first unnoticed as he dives below the kicking legs of prepubescents like a kid in a candy shop, but when he's recognized by a resident (Brad's friend Larry (Noah Emmerich, "Miracle," "Cellular") has been running a local harassment campaign), the pool is cleared by parents as panicked as those on the beach in "Jaws." Ronnie is fiercely protected by his mother May (Phyllis Somerville, "The Sleepy Time Gal," "Swimfan"), who only sees the good in her distasteful looking son, an illusion she extends with the saintly Hummel figurines she collects which comprise the film's first image.
And so we have a woman whose home office points at the college student still within, a grown man whose wife (Jennifer Connelly, "A Beautiful Mind," "Dark Water") brings home the bacon as a PBS producer while he cloaks his immaturity as child rearing, a husband (Sarah's Richard, Gregg Edelman, "Spider-Man 2") distracted from his family by his obsession with Internet porn and a grown man whose mommy coddling may be the cause of his arrested sexual development. Kathy Adamson may appear to be a responsible adult, but just what lack of self confidence has tied her to the smoothly bland Brad? Only Jean (Helen Carey, "The Emperor's Club"), Sarah's older friend and sometime babysitter, seems to have the ability to look outside herself and recognize the egocentricity blinding others.
Winslet is brilliant creating a character whose self-doubts are sympathetic even as her actions to overcome them repulse. She seems abandoned within her own pleasures even as she analyzes (she makes an oft maligned book club defense of 'Madame Bovary' work with expressive thoughtfulness) and her abrupt about face when she realizes her folly when she almost loses what she has ignored is breathtaking. Wilson has less room for emotional revelation in his character, but he makes Brad an understandable object of attraction, a little boy in a man's body who is just as likely to be tempted by adulterous sex as illicit skateboarding (watch how he infers orgasm in a wipeout's aftermath).
Besides Winslet, the actor most deserving of Oscar recognition is Jackie Earle Haley as the despised Ronald James McGorvey. The distinctive looking actor, returning to the screen three decades after his work in "Bad News Bears" and "Breaking Away," made one of the few impressions in "All the King's Men" and does stunning work here. The actor makes Ronnie's battle with his baser instincts a tormented anguish while still making our skin crawl - never more so than at the end of an arranged date with Sheila (Jane Adams, "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," "Last Holiday"), surely the unluckiest woman in the singles' scene. The child sex offender is the movie's poster child in more ways than one.
"Little Children" isn't perfect - Sarah's husband Richard virtually disappears from the story after being made a pervy punchline - but Fields has made his warts and all characters utterly and compellingly human.
Robin did not see this film.
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