Apparently, if you let loose a stay-at-home dad in an otherwise quiet neighborhood rife with Goldfish-wielding, toddler-herding homemakers, God gets angry. It’s a logical correlation in Little Children, where the plot unleashes a pedophile on the neighborhood in which Patrick Wilson and Kate Winslet start covertly copulating while their five-year-olds more innocently sleep together upstairs.
The latest offbeat effort from screenwriter/novelist Tom Perrotta, responsible for the iconic 1990s type-A Tracy Flick and her sexual tastes in his first adapted film Election, examines Anytown, Massachusetts and the ins-and-outs of the mental states of the caretaking parents of small children. This time Perrotta collaborates with the similarly subversive director, Todd Field, whose last major project, In the Bedroom, investigated murder within an equally quiet suburban community, also after an illicit affair. It seems this team is destined to have some suburban, sexually inappropriate screenplay chemistry.
The story follows Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) and hometown hottie Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) (who of course is named Brad because everyone born between 1960 and 1980 named Brad sweats studliness). Sarah, with her lack of patience for her kindergartner Lucy and lack of affection for her office-dwelling husband, doubts her decision to stay at home and every decision that led her there. She pales in comparison to the other moms at the corner playground, forgetting Lucy’s snack (gasp — the cardinal sin of motherhood) and other quotidian duties. Winslet can sum up her character’s day-to-day existence with one prolonged but heartfelt sigh — that is, until strapping Brad shows up at the park one fine day with preschooler Aaron in a carriage. Sarah somehow convinces Brad to shock the other moms by kissing her, and after a few days of finding nothing better to think about than each other, they commence a torrid affair right under the noses of their spouses and neighbors.
Meanwhile, a few blocks down, the town Popo just released a middle-aged, extraordinarily fugly pedophile named Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley) to go live with his mama, the only place he legally can live. A retired policeman friend of Brad’s (Noah Emmerich), another of the restless homebody townspeople, takes it upon himself to harass McGorvey with his concerned parents committee (population: one). The intersections of the two stories culminate in revelations for all the characters about their lives in this type of standard suburban existence.
Fields chose to employ a narrator for Little Children, creating a storybook feel for the film that makes its lack of innocence all the more striking. Though the actors all fulfill their jobs adequately, each of the omniscient narrator’s comments reinforces the characters’ intentions and emotions so they’re impossible to ignore or miss. Gimmicky, maybe, but effective nonetheless. He also sometimes includes screen versions of thought-bubbles, such as when Brad thinks about his wife’s perfect body in comparison to Winslet’s frumpy exterior (which masks the licentious woman beneath).
The individual storylines meander a bit. Taking place over the course of one sweltering summer, the plot shifts between Brad, Sarah, their spouses, etc., and it’s hard to focus on one character when it’s his or her turn to capture the affections or disdain of the audience. The story does, however, reveal the underbelly of suburbia with respect to almost the entire movie’s cast, and it even forces us to empathize with their less-than-perfect decisions and situational morality, which is, of course, the aim of the film.
Little Children sparks intellectual examination of the secret lives of children’s caregivers and other such homebodies without steeping to the soap-opera lows of Desperate Housewives. Actresses like Winslet and Connelly ground the film with their strong portrayals of their faulted, but seemingly perfect characters, and Wilson breaks through as their gentleman foil. Earle Haley won several awards for his depiction of the town pedophile, and he and Winslet are both up for Oscars for their roles. Where the plotlines falter, the actors elevate the picture, as does its intriguing central suggestion that children should perhaps not be left at home with their skeezy parents.