In the excellently cast and superbly written Little Children, fear grips the land of sippy cups, playgroups and quiet, tree-lined suburbia. From playground to community pool, it's palpable: the fear of not fitting in, the fear of people who are different, and the fear that someone will come in and tarnish the shiny, happy veneer of tranquility. And, for many of the movie's characters, there's the fear that this is all life has to offer fear of what it means to grow up and fear of giving in to their desires.
Directed by Todd Field and based on Tom Perrotta's novel, the movie's tone lies somewhere in the middle of Field's tragic In the Bedroom and Perrotta's wry Election. The film wavers between the menacing and the satirical, but never loses its grip on you.
Little Children follows a quiet, bedroom community where gossipy hens shuttle toddlers to the playground and swap notes on parenting and sex. (For instance, one woman advises the others to be practical and do what she does, schedule time for sex weekly at 9 p.m. on Tuesdays.)
Perrotta's observational skills perfectly capture the suburban doldrums, without the camp and pomp of Desperate Housewives or the highly stylized theatrics of American Beauty though they all have common themes.
Sarah (Kate Winslet) never finished her dissertation but instead married an older man, who, she discovers, has an obsessive friendship with an online vixen named Slutty Kay (she mailed him her panties for sniffing). Sarah has insisted on staying home with their toddler, though she regrets the choice, and her idea of mothering is a far cry from the über-moms around her. Yet Sarah joins them, claiming to be something of an anthropologist, just watching their rituals of play dates, snack time and gossip. (The audience, too, gets to feel some of same detached observation, as the characters' inner feelings are delivered via third-person narration from Frontline's voice man Will Lyman.)
The moms' carefully ordered world is only thrown off course by the presence of stay-at-home dad Brad (Patrick Wilson), whom they dub the "Prom King." Brad, like Sarah, has not embraced adult life. He has an incomplete career (he twice failed the bar exam, despite having finished law school) and an unhappy marriage to wife Kathy, a successful documentarian who doesn't hide her disappointment in her husband's lack of motivation.
On a dare, Sarah approaches him at the playground, then to bait the gossiping moms, convinces him to kiss her. The encounter leads to a friendship and a heated affair.
Meanwhile, the neighborhood order gets shaken by the presence of Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), a recently released sex offender who's moved in with his mom. Ronnie is persecuted, especially by an overzealous retired cop (Noah Emmerich) who passes out fliers warning parents of his presence.
Field and the cast execute the story well, though some points leave one wondering what was omitted from the book. Connelly's Kathy, for instance, is more a caricature and lacks the complexities of the others, and her little screen time doesn't allow room to explain her motivations.
But there's enough that's right about Little Children to compensate for the holes, namely the performances of Haley, Wilson and Winslet, as well as Field's steady, intense delivery and Perrotta's acute storytelling.
Their work has us alternately feeling empathy and disgust for Sarah, Brad and Ronnie, and connects the seemingly distinct storylines. Albeit to different degrees, these three represent what the town fears the most that their picture-perfect life ain't quite so perfect.
Showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456).
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.