About halfway through Todd Field's deeply resonant "Little Children," adulterous suburban lovers Sarah and Brad (Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson) indulge in something really naughty: They join in a moment of mass moral panic and righteous ostracism at the community pool. The cheerful chaos has just been obliterated by the discovery that the goggled and flippered town pervert, Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), has slipped into the water among the kids. Sarah spots him first, then awareness sweeps over the crowd like a wave. Parents rush poolside, children scramble out of the water or get plucked out by the armpits, babies start to wail. It's as if the shark from "Jaws" had finally found a way to justify decades of collective primal fear. Wrapping their arms around their kids, Sarah and Brad instinctively join the crowd. They may be guilty, but McGorvey, mercifully for them, is guilty of much worse.
For a nearly wordless sequence, the pervert-in-the-pool scene is astonishingly complex, not to mention brave, and it's indicative of the wicked insight and emotional subtlety at play in Field's lucid and sensitive film. The movie begins as a satire, rolling inexorably forward — like the meatball in the camp song — building steam, mass and weight until it completely obliterates every bogus piety in its path. What's revealed in its wake is an empathetic, humanistic vision that rejects, even in difficult, extreme cases, the mob impulse to demonize.
The story of an illicit love affair that coincides with a presumed pedophile's move to town, "Little Children" is based on a book by Tom Perrotta, who wrote the novel "Election" (Alexander Payne's film was later based on it). Field, whose last film was "In the Bedroom," co-wrote the movie with Perrotta, with whom he obviously shares an interest in hermetic environments and a fascination with what happens when their familiar dynamics are disturbed by outside or deviant forces. But "Little Children" is one of those rare films that transcends its source material. Firmly rooted in the present and in our current frame of mind — a time and frame of mind that few artists have shown interest in really exploring — the movie is one of the few films I can think of that examines the baffling combination of smugness, self-abnegation, ceremonial deference and status anxiety that characterizes middle-class Gen X parenting, and find sheer, white-knuckled terror at its core.
The title is far more inclusive than it seems at first. Sarah and Brad are misfits in their town, where the norm is so rigidly but tacitly enforced that even the slightest deviance raises eyebrows and hackles. The two meet one morning at the playground frequented by a cadre of regimental stay-at-home moms ruled by queen bee Mary Ann (Mary B. McCann). Mary Ann's approach to child-rearing combines a militarism, adherence to protocol and self-satisfaction not seen since "The King and I," and while Sarah tries to conform to the strict rules of snack times and play-dates, she can't manage to subsume herself to the degree required by her cohorts. Her feelings of rebellion and inadequacy are exacerbated by the fact that conformity is couched in a false broad-mindedness and empathy, making it insidious, alienating and cruel.
If Sarah is a threat to the moms' conformity, the mysterious house-husband Brad is a threat to their complacency. Male, beautiful to the point of inciting panic (the ladies call him "the prom king") and apparently unemployed, he's an erotic apparition in the playground, not to mention an apparently discomfiting reminder of a stage in life when sex was its own justification and reward, instead of another task to be scheduled. Sarah, who is unhappily married to a much older man named Richard (Gregg Edelman), a remote and tedious branding consultant with a secret porn fetish, gets through the days pretending to be "an anthropologist studying the behavior of suburban women," not as a suburban woman herself. Her attraction to Brad, therefore, is not only impulsive and romantic, it's intrinsic to her sense of who she is — or was. Among other things, a former PhD candidate in literature. (She never finished her thesis.)
Brad's attraction to Sarah has more to do with what she sees in him than what he sees in her, as well as with her willingness to inhabit a world outside of their reality. She's not as beautiful as his wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), but she demands nothing. While Kathy waits impatiently for Brad to pass the bar (which he's failed twice), Sarah is happy to live with him in the past, clinging to the idea that they are hovering in the pleasant limbo of unrealized potential, cheering madly in the otherwise deserted bleachers at night football games in which a bunch of cops play a bunch of accountants. When he's not taking care of his son, playing football or watching teenagers skateboard at the high school when he's supposed to be studying for the bar, Brad spends evenings riding around town in his new friend Larry Hedges' (Noah Emmerich) van. Larry, who befriends Brad one night during his "rounds," warning the town of McGorvey's presence in their midst, is Mary Ann's male counterpart. A former cop who took early retirement under troubling circumstances, he now dedicates his time to persecuting McGorvey and his mother, May (Phyllis Somerville). Haley and Somerville are remarkable as "mommy" and damaged son, creating a rapport astonishingly layered with disappointment, resignation and wary hope.
"Have you ever thought about the term 'homeland security'? I mean really thought about it?" Larry asks Brad one night. Brad doesn't say, but the question lingers. Security weighs heavily on all the characters, but the more they grasp at it, the more damage they do to themselves and others. May's deep inner strength exists in sharp contrast to Larry's bullying, which masks a bottomless well of self-loathing and fear. Obsessed with "the family," "the community" and, of course, "the children," Larry causes nothing but harm.
It's the same poisonous certitude that causes Mary Ann to take the opportunity, during another memorable scene at a book club, to tell Sarah what she thinks of her by calling the unhappily married and unfaithful fictional character Emma Bovary "selfish" and "a slut." Sarah delivers a defense of the individual versus the crowd that is rousing, moving and all the more touching for the fact that she, like Madame Bovary, is neglecting her child. While Sarah and Brad's standard adulterer's guilt is painfully heightened by the aggressively virtuous cult-of-the-child that stifles their pretty suburban town, the movie's actual kids are not so much characters as they are tiny loci of anxiety, resentment and redirected ambition. In fact, the only child in the story who is loved reciprocally and without reservation is McGorvey. His mother is a firecracker with no illusions about her son and only the most modest expectations, which he will probably not meet. Strangely, she adores him anyway.
MPAA rating: R for strong sexuality
A New Line Cinema release. Director Todd Field. Screenplay Field, Tom Perrotta, based on Perrotta's novel. Producers Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa, Field. Director of photography Antonio Calvache. Editor Leo Trombetta. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
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