Based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, "Little Children" is slick, literate, and not shy about its Oscar bait hopefulness. In its look at unhappy marriages and dysfunctional life in suburbia, however, it is a pale and shallow imitation of 1999's "American Beauty
" and 2004's "We Don't Live Here Anymore
." Director Todd Fields (2001's "In the Bedroom
") has compiled an A-list cast of superlative actors, but handed most of them roles that, if not one-note, are at the very least undernourished and vastly lacking the depth and versatility needed to make them more than whiny, self-absorbed shells of human beings. The ideas and themes are all there for a provocative drama about the yearnings, regrets and daydreams of a life unlike one's own, but they only graze the surface in a screenplay by Fields and Perrotta that finally works itself out in displays of either predictable or unbelievable forced irony.
Narrated in omnipresent third-person (by Will Lyman) that recalls the style of 2002's "Personal Velocity
," "Little Children" on occasion exhibits the feeling of indulging in a well-crafted book. When the narration ends and conventional cinematic storytelling takes over, the film's developmental deficiency shines through. These characters are capable of being sympathetic, but this is mostly due to the talents of the performers. Overall, it's difficult to get a clean handle on who these people are and where they're coming from in the decisions they make outside of the requirements of the plot. Because of this, there is little connection or care for where things lead.
That is the case, at least, with nearly everyone but Ronald "Ronnie" McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), a convicted pedophile who has recently been released from prison and moved in with his elderly mother May (Phyllis Somerville). The news of Ronnie's return to his old stomping ground puts fear in the hearts of many of the townspeople in East Wyndham, Massachusetts, leading to harassment, property vandalism, and general outrage when he shows up one day at the neighborhood swimming pool. Clad in goggles and breathing through a snorkel, Ronnie lurks beneath the water, spying on the underage bodies of the children splashing and playing around him. It's a frightening sequence, not only because of the dangerous possibilities of what could happen and what urges could be unleashed in Ronnie, but because the parents of the kids in the pool simultaneously react as if a killer shark were about to eat their offspring up. It is surely no accident that for a few musical chords, there are shades of the "Jaws" theme heard. Even when Ronnie seems like a ticking time bomb about to be set off, he is written with compassion, understanding and pity. If Ronnie is the threat everyone in East Wyndham believes, then he is also just as much someone who, in his psychosexual illness and stunted maturity, is worth feeling sorry for.
If Ronnie is the catalyst to which all else revolves, then stay-at-home mom Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) and unemployed father Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) are the focal points within the hurricane. Both are in dreary marriagesshe to an older businessman named Richard (Gregg Edelman) who is addicted to porn, and he to gorgeous but stiff documentarian Kathy (Jennifer Connelly)a common bond that allows them to relate to one another when they meet at the park.
With their kids in tow, Sarah and Brad soon begin spending more time together at the swimming pool. Their platonic relationship is clearly headed for treacherous watersan inevitability consummated one rainy afternoon while their children nap and their wet clothes dry in the basement laundry room. Invigorated by a newfound sexual liberation, they fantasize about being a couple and running off with each other, all the while carefully hiding their infidelity from their spouses and questioning whether or not their relationship has any future at all. The outcome of Sarah's and Brad's actions ultimately collide with Ronnie's and Lennie Hedges' (Noah Emmerich), the latter a shamed ex-cop-turned-radical-neighborhood-watchdog.
"Little Children" grabs the viewer's attention for 130 minutes, and it is only once the end credits have begun to roll that you step back, process what you have seen, and leave dissatisfied by the picture's derivative nature and poorly actualized characters. The step-by-step progression of Sarah's and Brad's relationship isn't surprising, and also not deep or nuanced enough to appear authentically charismatic. A chance to bring weight to their affair is botched when they sneak away together for the night while Brad is supposedly taking his bar exam and then are never even seen spending that time together.
Their respective marriages are glimpsed too briefly also, with Richard disappearing from the film's second half save for one scene and he and Sarah interacting a total of three times during the whole movie. Director Todd Fields takes great pains to describe Richard's curious online porn habits, but this plot threadand Sarah's subsequent discovery of suchis forgotten about as soon as it arises. As for Kathy, she is a serious working woman with so much love for her son that she forgets to spread that affection over to Brad. This, along with her monopolization of finances and decisions, may be their marriage's initial downfall, but Kathy's screen time is minimal. Jennifer Connelly (2005's "Dark Water
") valiantly attempts to make something out of nothing in a part that should have gone to a lesser-known actor with more to prove.
As miserable suburbanites Sarah and Brad, Kate Winslet (2004's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
") and Patrick Wilson (2006's "Hard Candy
") are convincing but in different classes. Winslet is an ace performer of subtlety, poignancy, and multiple layers, and is especially impressive in her later scenes where she experiences an epiphany about the kind of mother she has become and the kind of mother she should have been all along. Wilson, meanwhile, is okay but admittedly forgettable, his Brad one of the main characters and yet a cipher of uncertain feelings and contradictory behavior.
In keen supporting roles, Phyllis Somerville (2002's "Swimfan
") makes a warm and touching impression as Ronnie's worried but loving mother, and Jane Adams (2006's "Last Holiday
") steals her two scenes as Sheila, an emotionally fragile young woman who goes on a date with Ronnie. The standout above everyone, though, is Jackie Earle Haley (2006's "All the King's Men
"), who brings the tortured, tragic soul of Ronnie to searing life. Amidst the trite, uneven attempts this movie is going for at end-of-the-year Oscar recognition, Haley's uncompromising and painfully honest work is the one element worthy of awards notice.
A blend of dark humor and pathos, "Little Children" works in individual scenes. The narrow-minded conversations between the other mothers at the park Sarah frequents are quite funny, as is a book club meeting where Sarah sees parallels between her own indiscretions and those of the lead character in "Madame Bovary." Likewise, a late scene in which Sarah suddenly sees the mess she is making in her parenting of three-year-old daughter Lucy (Sadie Goldstein), and basically every moment concerning Ronnie, are powerful in a way that calls attention to the rest of the film's empty existentialism. The "Little Children" of the title refers not to literal kids, but to the immature doings of the adults. Although these characters eventually make choices destined to impact their futures, signs of growth on their part are disappointingly overshadowed by a sense that they have simply surrendered to their sad fates.