Director Todd Field’s second excursion into middle-class unease, Little Children (following his intelligent but overrated In the Bedroom), opens with a slow pan around a living room crowded with cheap china figurines of … little children. Twisted into insidious grins, their blood-red lips ooze a comic horror that will seep into the lives of the film’s real kids and their neglectful, hapless parents.
The movie unfolds at a leisurely pace in the parks, pools and leafy homes of an idyllic commuter town in Massachusetts. Though there’s a strong case to be made for the city as the new hub of puritan living, where people do little but overwork, overconsume and flop into bed at 9:30 p.m., suburbia continues to serve as the dartboard of choice for filmmakers bent on demonstrating their urbane superiority to the dull denizens of tract housing.
For all its surface spit and polish, Little Children is no different. It posits a town full of hypocrites busily persecuting the local child molester (a creepy Jackie Earle Haley) so as not face up to their own subterranean secrets and desires — the husband and father who wears panties on his head while jerking off to computer porn, for example. Though there’s genuine affection for the movie’s wise, spunky old dames, Little Children is downright vicious toward its stay-at-home moms, ciphers who tut-tut over snack protocol and giggle like virgins when a handsome dad shows up at the park. Chafing against this group are Sarah (Kate Winslet) and Brad (Patrick Wilson), two unfulfilled young parents unhappily married to other people. After a blissful summer lounging at the public pool, they find themselves coupling sweatily on a regular basis — until Brad’s wife (Jennifer Connelly) smells a rat.
Adapted by Field and Tom Perrotta from the novel by Perrotta (who also wrote the satire that became Alexander Payne’s Election), Little Children divides its time uneasily between melodrama and black comedy. Perrotta is a born satirist, but Field works most comfortably within the frame of earnest realism.
An actor himself, Field draws uniformly smooth performances from an unwieldy ensemble. Winslet, her ripe beauty bursting out of sensible dungarees and cardigans, makes us see how bookish Sarah could fall for an underachieving doofus like Brad.
Having made its pitch for life, liberty and the pursuit of romantic happiness, Little Children gathers itself into a moue of petit-bourgeois disapproval and deals out the wages of sin with zealous overkill in a left turn that even Freud would have found too literal-minded. This overlong movie feels divided against itself, driven by opposing impulses of tragedy and dark humor that make it impossible for us to identify with these lost souls’ break for freedom or wait for them to grow up.