Ah…the suburbs. “Little Children”, the new film by Academy-award nominee Todd Field (“In the Bedroom”) is an adaption of a book by Tom Perrotta that approaches subjects as banal as infidelity and malaise among housewives (“Desperate Housewives,” the TV show, is cut of the same cloth) but modernizes things with uneven doses of satire and melodrama. The presence of a convicted child molester (played with convincing creepiness byJackie Earle Haley) offers underlying tension. To the credit of Perrotta as well as Fields, however, the villain is treated with respect. In fact, the relationship between the unapologetically sicko pedophile and his mother creates the most empathetic characterizations in the entire film.
Everyone is flawed in this Massachusetts bedroom community, although Fields presents this, primarily through the use of a “Twilight Zone”-style voiceover narration, as comedy, kind-of. The balance between a directorial cynicism and a sense of bemused satire is so tipsy that one is kept off-guard, not knowing whether to snicker or sigh. Things build to a skillfully rendered, melodramatic climax, but the general malaise held in common by all the characters here keeps one from finding much empathy for them.
Patrick Wilson, a dreamily handsome young actor who could pass for Kevin Costner’s younger brother, is referred to by the playground Moms as “Prom King”. He’s not working at the moment because, having failed the bar exam twice, he is doing the stay-at-home Dad thing and getting ready to fail for the final time, while his “knockout” wife (Jennifer Connelly) brings home not quite enough bacon as a documentary producer for PBS. Prom King finds himself getting very friendly with the outsider second wife of an internet-sex-obsessed “Branding” executive who kills summer time out and around various parks and the public swimming poole with her odd little girl. Kate Winslet does a good job of being needy, bored and just good-looking enough to interest the Prom King. Between the presence of the pedophile and the handsome couple who jump into an affair with their children tagging along (thank god for naptime), this little community is rife naughty hornies.
Of course, what American community isn’t. There is nothing particularly remarkable about any of these people, or their circumstances. Fields just manages to paint an engaging picture of one summer with a lot of mixed-up emotions. What ultimately occurs also involves the ex-police pal who talks Prom King into a night football league AND a part in the pervert witch-hunt. None of it comes to any good. The success Fields has with this film comes through the uncomfortable intersection between comedy, melodrama and tragedy. Oh, and romance.