4 stars (out of four)
Unnervingly good, "Little Children" is one of the rare American films about adultery that feels right--dangerous, hushed, immediate--even when the sex takes a back seat to other longings.
Lust-related or not, true intimacy on the screen is no easier to capture than any other kind of truth. Despite a misstep or two, this is an excellent and sly picture, funny in ways you don't expect and arresting in a lot of other ways. It's also a marked improvement on the Tom Perrotta novel. Two of the film's crucial performers--Kate Winslet, playing a stay-at-home mother dying by degrees, and Jackie Earle Haley, as a sex offender recently released from prison, living down the lane--should certainly be remembered come awards time.
The story unfolds in a variety of familiar settings: the playground, the municipal pool, the sidewalks of a suburban Massachusetts town, the front seat of a car. It begins on the playground. Sarah Pierce (Winslet) is there as usual with her daughter, Lucy (Sadie Goldstein), while a Greek chorus of other stay-at-home mothers and their better-behaved, better-fed and better-dressed kids trade gossip and little arrows of malice.
Sarah is a not-great mother, distracted and resentful in several different directions, stuck in a marriage of fiscally comfortable convenience to a branding expert (Gregg Edelman). Her husband is obsessed, secretly, with a particular demi-star of Internet porn, a figment known as "Slutty Kay." (The husband's role in the story has been de-emphasized from the novel.) Not long into "Little Children" Sarah discovers his secret. Before that, however, Sarah has already taken her own leap into the forbidden.
One day another stay-at-home parent makes a playground appearance. He is Brad (Patrick Wilson), who has twice failed the bar exam and glides through his days with his son (Ty Simpkins).The ladies of the chorus have a nickname for this enticingly unattainable hunk: The Prom King. On a dare, Sarah asks for his phone number. Brad and Sarah go further: They hug. And then they kiss, scandalizing the other women. Before long they're spending afternoon upon afternoon at the pool, and then in Sarah's sweaty attic, in each other's arms, while the kids nap.
Theirs is not the only story here. Ronnie McGorvey (Haley, a long way from "The Bad News Bears") is the anti-Christ of East Wyndham, Mass.: The sex offender exposed himself to a minor and did his time and now finds himself under the intense scrutiny and harassment of the town. A neighborhood watch group headed by a troubled ex-cop (Noah Emmerich) has plastered Ronnie's face on flyers all over town. Ronnie's mother (Phyllis Somerville, terrific in her flintiness) is a woman whose heart continually breaks over these threats to her son, as well as the specter of his misdeeds. She urges her son into dating a normal adult woman. "I have a psychosexual disorder," Ronnie says flatly in response. In a film of beautifully acted encounters the most remarkable is the dinner and the post-dinner encounter between Ronnie and his date, played brilliantly by Jane Adams.
Co-writer and director Todd Field's follow-up to his formidable debut, "In the Bedroom," has a more open-ended and novelistic texture than its source material. (Perrotta co-adapted the screenplay.) On the page "Little Children" was easy, bouncy, full of pop culture references, right down to a nod to "American Beauty," the suburban-anomie hit that was just facile enough in its reversals and revelations to win Academy Awards. In both its seriousness and its wit, Field's film feels more grown-up.
Sarah is meant to be less conventionally attractive than Brad or Brad's documentary filmmaker wife, played by Jennifer Connolly. Winslet doesn't really cooperate on that score, but she's such an honest and direct purveyor of emotion you forget about the looks part. She does wonderful things both physically and emotionally--lowering her center of gravity, hunching her shoulders, clouding her face with a subtle but deep-seeded sense of agitation--and the result is spectacular naturalistic acting. With all the "Little Children" characters you never sense an actor, or the director behind the actor, making the simple, "relatable" choice. Haley's pale, haunted Ronnie could scarcely be bettered or more nuanced. Even the film's voice-over narration feels fresh: Spoken by an uncredited Will Lyman, the voice of "Frontline," the narration describes the various domestic rituals and societal dangers as if talking of a world long ago and far away. (My favorite, from the book, is the description of Brad's mother-in-law's "surprise visit of ominously indeterminate length.")
Field stumbles a bit near the end. The way a key character becomes another's unlikely savior doesn't convince. Also, Field doesn't quite prepare the audience for the improbably comic scene where Brad, who plays in a pick-up football league with some ferocious characters, meets up with Sarah after the game.
These are small drawbacks in a rich experience. What George Bernard Shaw called "the impassable, eternal gulf" between parents and children becomes the thematic bridge between all the various parents and children intersecting in Perrotta's tale. It's a story of adultery that is more than a story of adultery, and it's one of the best American movies of the year.
Directed by Todd Field; screenplay by Field and Tom Perrotta, based on Perrotta's novel; cinematography by Antonio Calvache; edited by Leo Trombetta; production design by David Gropman; music by Thomas Newman; produced by Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa and Field. A New Line Cinema release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:10. MPAA rating: R (for strong sexuality and nudity, language and some disturbing content).
Sarah Pierce - Kate Winslet
Brad Adamson - Patrick Wilson
Kathy Adamson - Jennifer Connelly
Ronnie McGorvey - Jackie Earle Haley
Larry Hedges - Noah Emmerich
May McGorvey - Phyllis SomervilleCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times