October 26, 2006

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Little Children (R)
Immaturity abounds in the denizens of an upscale Boston suburb in Little Children.

Not so much among the children, who display only normal kid-amounts of oddness (refusal to sit in a car seat, insistence on always wearing a jester’s cap). But the adults are practically twitching with insecurity and schoolyard pettiness. Sarah (Kate Winslet) sits with the bitchy stay-at-home moms in the playground but she does not consider herself one of them. Whether consciously or not, she separates herself from them physically (sitting on a different bench), psychologically (forgetting to bring the mid-day snack, wincing when another mom tells her to make a list of things to bring to the park and put it on her door so she’ll always see it) and even in dress (Sarah wears frumpy denim overalls while the other mothers wear sleeker, though matronly, sweater sets). She is part desperate shut-in, part rebellious teenager.

Perhaps it’s the bookish-girl-smoking-behind-the-high-school in Sarah that is attracted to the “Prom King” in Brad (Patrick Wilson). “Prom King” is what the other mothers call Brad, a handsome stay-at-home dad who causes a stir when he walks into the playground. Looking to shake up the other moms, Sarah talks to Brad. They up the ante, hugging and even kissing. Though meant as a joke, the kiss becomes a sort of awakening for the two of them. They become reluctant friends, flirt buddies really, who spend the summer hanging out at the pool. Sarah’s husband Richard (Gregg Edelman) is a somewhat older-than-her advertising executive with a crush on an Internet porn star. Brad’s wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) is a documentary-maker seemingly full of unspoken resentment about Brad’s not working. She pushes him out the door nightly, believing (or at least wanting to believe) that he is studying to take the bar exam for the third time (really he is hanging out watching the teenagers skateboard). Neither stay-at-home-spouse seems to relate to their working partner anymore. It is as though the at-home world isolates them from all aspects of the rest of the adult world, to include even the person to whom they are married.

Left in this suburban playground alone, Brad and Sarah slowly turn their friendship into a romance, one that is both more alive than their relationships with their respective spouses and less real. Sarah realizes that nothing more substantial can come of their affair, even as they talk of leaving their spouses for each other.

All playgrounds have dangers and in this one danger is personified by Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earl Haley), a pedophile who has recently been released from jail and moved back in with his mom. Though she desperately hopes he’ll be able to have a “normal life” he and we know this will never happen. The neighbors will make sure this never happens either, specifically neighbor Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich), a retired cop who has made keeping an eye on Ronnie his life’s purpose. (He didn’t retire willingly — his law enforcement career ended after an incident in which he was at fault.) Larry still plays football with a group of local cops and he invites Brad to join them. Brad quickly becomes the leader of this team, giving Larry yet another area in which to feel inferior.

Through the movie, the thoughts of Brad and Sarah are explained to us by a bland-voiced omniscient narrator. At times, his cool, detached observations feel like smart, sly commentary on the boiling emotions slowly driving each of the neighborhood’s yuppie parents mad. At other times, the narrator feels like a crunch for a story overburdened with the trials of Larry and Ronnie — the family lives of Brad and Sarah would have provided plenty of story material. Their actions are silly, reckless, blind, emotionally stunted — in other words, plenty Oscar-worthy on their own. Ronnie and Larry add notes of real danger — the kind that ends with death and actual as opposed to existential suffering — but they also add a B plot that jerks our attention from the A story. The greater wrongs of Ronnie seem to undermine some of the subtlety the movie builds with its story of Brad and Sarah. B-

Rated R for language, nudity, sexual situations, disturbing content and some icksome violence. Directed by Todd Field and written by Field and Tom Perrotta (author of the book of the same name on which the movie is based), Little Children is distributed by New Line Cinema in about a dozen cities nationwide (including Boston) and is two hours and 10 minutes long.

— Amy Diaz