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Movie review: 'Little Children'

Carrie Rickey
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Everything about Todd Field's ironically-titled "Little Children" subverts audience expectations.

PopMatters review of Little Children

Everything about Todd Field's ironically-titled "Little Children" subverts audience expectations.

The film is about playground politics among parents in a leafy hamlet within commuting distance of Boston. And its opening sequence of young mothers ogling "the prom king," a handsome father at the park, turns out to be the amusing overture to the emotionally shattering symphony that follows, one of desperate housewives and househusbands in a town that boasts the secrets of Gabrielle Solis' Wisteria Lane and the lies of Emma Bovary's Yonville.

As the three stay-at-home moms salivate over the fine specimen of "hunkus suburbanus" (Patrick Wilson as Brad Adamson), a fourth regards the jolly, judgmental trio with unconcealed contempt.

She would be Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet), whose adorable 3-year-old, Lucy, likewise prefers to play by herself than with others in the sandbox.

It is the premise of Field's film (he collaborated with Tom Perotta on the adaptation of the latter's novel) that the residents of this Eden called Wyndham, Mass., are so anxious (about their status, their marriages, their careers) that they overreact to a perceived snake in the garden.

He would be Ronnie McGorvey (the astounding Jackie Earle Haley), convicted of exposing himself to an underage girl and now living with his mother (the equally astounding Phyllis Somerville). The irony of this darker-than-midnight social satire is that Ronnie McGorvey might be the best citizen in Wyndham (he certainly is the most sympathetic) and that his mother, May, might be the best parent.

For many of the moms and dads in this privileged enclave, children are a status accessory, intrusion or pawn. Though she likes to cuddle her little Aaron, Brad's breadwinner wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), seems more absorbed by the boy she's making a documentary about than in her own adorable son, who she uses as a tool to emasculate her spouse, a prospective lawyer who twice has failed the bar exam. What the film does elegantly is explore the militarized zone where pious parents who have made their children their lives lob bombs at the impious parents who worry that their children have taken away their lives.

Some of the themes here, such as adultery and the specter of pedophilia, were likewise explored (or do you say caricatured?) in the more stylish but less emotionally satisfying "American Beauty." Field, who made the likewise unsettling "In the Bedroom," strikes more resonant chords. He understands that all of his characters (and probably his audience, too) are not without sin, even though many are quick to cast the first stone.

Winslet and Wilson are excellent as the parents who, over a sultry summer, drift into a supportive friendship and ignite a blazing affair. But the strength of his film - as in "Bedroom" - is in its understanding that its many characters are part of a community. If one dives into the local pool, everyone feels the splash.

During its two hours-plus running time, Field's movie veers from dark comedy to melodrama, not always gracefully. But tonal inconsistencies don't blunt the keenness of its satire, so sharp that I walked out with emotional razor burn.

___

LITTLE CHILDREN

3 stars

Produced by Albert Berger, Todd Field and Ron Yerxa, directed by Field, written by Field and Tom Perrotta, based on Perrotta's novel, photography by Anonio Calvache, music by Thomas Newman, distributed by New Line Cinema.

Running time: 2 hours, 10 mins.

Cast: Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Haley, Phyllis Somerville

Rating: R (profanity, nudity, sex)

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