Little Children (New Line) is like a pretty, well-tended suburban mom who, after an hour of pleasant conversation, suddenly lights up a cigarette and launches into a wry, raunchy, and finally heartbreaking story. You know from the get-go that it's beautiful, but it takes time and patience to discover that it's also funny, sexy, and sad.
Tom Perrotta, who adapted the script from his 2004 novel, is a natural match for co-writer and director Todd Field (In the Bedroom). When Alexander Payne made Perrotta's Election into one of the best movie comedies of the 1990s, he had to tweak the novel's gently satiric tone to match his own far bleaker sensibility. No one in Election, the movie, is really likable, though Matthew Broderick's self-serving protagonist elicits a guilty sympathy. But Field and Perrotta share a real affection for even their most thwarted and self-deluded characters. There's no one in Little Children who isn't likable, not even the pedophilic pervert Ronnie James McGorvey, played to perfection by Jackie Earle Haley.
The multiple story threads all converge around McGorvey, who has just been released from prison for indecent exposure to a minor as the movie begins. The town seizes upon him as a kind of symbolic sacrifice, an aberration to be cast out. Mary Ann (Mary B. McCann), the rigid leader of the stay-at-home-mom brigade, recommends castration, to the amusement of Sarah (Kate Winslet), who we soon learn is the odd mother out at the playground. A literature grad student who never finished her dissertation, Sarah is a scruffy, brainy misfit trapped in a bad marriage and a life of stultifying privilege. The script's contention that she's also plain-looking is a stretch—yeah, that Kate Winslet, what a dog—but Winslet is versatile enough to show us that Sarah feels uncomfortable in her body.
That is, until she initiates an adulterous fling with Brad (Patrick Wilson), a handsome househusband whom the playground moms have nicknamed the "Prom King." Soon, Sarah and Brad are meeting every weekday at the town pool and having sex during their children's nap time, flouting community standards with a shamelessness straight out of Madame Bovary (which becomes a reference point later in the film). Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), Brad's maddeningly beautiful wife, is so busy earning a living that she takes a while to notice that her husband is not only cheating on her but getting mixed up with the likes of Larry (Noah Emmerich), a retired cop who vents his barely repressed rage by tormenting McGorvey and his mother, May (Phyllis Somerville).
As Brad and Sarah's affair heats up and Larry's pursuit of the McGorveys intensifies, we begin to suspect that the town pervert may be less of a danger to the local children than their own harried, anxious, and self-obsessed parents. Sarah Pierce is a female character of a type rarely seen in mainstream cinema: a mother who's neither fiercely protective of her child, a la Jodie Foster in Panic Room, nor sweetly aglow with maternal contentment, a la every Hollywood mother since Doris Day. Instead, she's lackadaisical and ambivalent, affectionate with her daughter, Lucy (Sadie Goldstein), but reluctant to cast her lot with the adult reality of parenthood. In one of the movie's harshest scenes, Sarah smiles into the mirror after a shower, fondly recalling her weekend away with her lover, as her daughter bangs on the bathroom door, offering her mother a homemade gift. It would be easy for the film to take on the Mary Ann role here, clucking at Sarah's parental negligence. But though everyone who's been a child will feel for little Lucy in this scene, anyone who has children will also understand Sarah's need for that moment in front of the mirror.
Little Children's pleasures are many (including an almost Hitchcockian climax), and its troubles are few (including, unfortunately, a cumbersome and condescending voice-over straight from a PBS documentary). All of the actors, most notably Winslet, are superb, but the movie belongs to Jackie Earle Haley, a former child actor who, after a long career hiatus, was also recently seen as Sugar Boy, the governor's chauffeur, in All the King's Men. Haley, a slightly built man with a drawn, haunting face, played the likable runt in both Bad News Bears (1976) and Breaking Away (1979). If this realization means anything to you at all, it will make you feel very, very old as you watch Little Children, where Haley's desiccated McGorvey seems to have weathered the worst that life has to offer. McGorvey's final fate, a radical rewrite of the novel's ending, may strike some viewers as overdetermined and melodramatic. But the uncanny lucidity of Haley's performance makes it moving nonetheless. Little Children lavishes an almost parental mercy on its flawed and damaged characters, finally linking McGorvey's offenses to Sarah's without damning, or forgiving, either one.