Kate Winslet as Sarah Pierce
Patrick Wilson as Brad Adamson
Sadie Goldstein as Lucy Pierce
Ty Simpkins as Aaron Adamson
Jennifer Connelly as Kathy Adamson
Jackie Earle Haley as Ronald James McGorvey
Phyllis Somerville as May McGorvey
Gregg Edelman as Richard Pierce
Noah Emmerich as Larry Hedges
Raymond J. Barry as Bullhorn Bob
Trini Alvarado as Theresa
Erica Berg as Secretary
Chadwick Brown as Tony Corrente
Sarah Buxton as Carla
Marsha Dietlein as Cheryl
Directed by Todd Field
Two distinct references come to the forefront while watching “Little Children,” the first being Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty” for its similar tone and feel, and the second, of all things, is “Desperate Housewives.” The latter comparison isn’t helped by an early scene where suburban mothers watch their kids at the playground, while a third person narrative voice-over describes the setting and what’s going on in the mind of Sarah (Kate Winslet), a frumpy outsider in the group. It’s a logical enough way to maintain the omnipotent descriptions found in a novel, but it’s something that takes time to adjust to, especially when it mysteriously disappears and then returns later.
The gossiping housewives in question are enthralled by a handsome father, dubbed “The Prom King,” who sometimes shows up at the playground, and on a dare, Sarah starts a conversation with the man, whose actual name is Brad (Patrick Wilson). As a joke, Brad and Sarah decide to freak out the ogling women by kissing, but the harmless prank opens up feelings of desire and lust which soon turns into sexual dalliances whenever they put their respective kids down for their nap. They both have been disappointed by their working spouses, Brad’s beautiful wife, played by Jennifer Connelly, pushing him to pass the bar exam, though he’s become distracted by a nighttime football league organized by his former cop acquaintance Larry (Noah Emmerich). Larry is himself obsessed with the community’s big talking point, a sex offender living in the neighborhood after being jailed for exposing himself to minors.
The first time we see said offender, Ronny McGorvey, it’s his picture taped to signposts all over the neighborhood, and after hearing talking about him for the first half of the movie, we finally meet the creepy individual, as he shows up at a crowded public swimming pool in the middle of summer, causing a panic. At this point, the movie shifts its focus from Sarah and Brad’s affair to Ronny, a troubled man with real psychological problems who still lives with his aging mother, and who might not fully deserve the hatred that comes along with Larry’s harassment.
That’s the basic premise, and while the situations offer the type of human emotions many experience every day, there’s a lot more laughs in the movie than you might expect, everything from exaggerated visual humor to subtler cerebral gags. But essentially, it’s exactly what you might expect from a collaboration between the writer of “Election” and the filmmaker behind “In the Bedroom.” Perotta’s rich multi-layered story and equally complex characters are all maintained, but in Field’s attempt to be respectful of the material, the movie tends to be slow and repetitive in trying to drive home Perrotta’s message that we’re all kids at heart even after growing up and having kids ourselves.
“Little Children” continues a run of great film roles for Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson as parents unable to connect with their kids, ignoring them to chase their own desires. Winslet is talented enough to convince us that she lack confidence in her looks and desirability, while Wilson is as charming as ever, bringing just the right youthful exuberance to prove Perrotta’s point. Like Zach Braff in the recent “The Last Kiss,” you can’t feel too sympathetic towards him due to his childish behavior, though both of them pull off the feelings of dissatisfaction that must sometimes go through the minds of married people with demanding working spouses.
As much as the story is about Brad and Sarah’s affair, you can’t help but be impressed by Noah Emmerich’s performance as Larry, a hilarious caricature of the macho suburban male trying to justify his incomprehensible actions. More importantly, the movie signifies one of the greatest Hollywood comebacks, maybe ever, as actor Jackie Earl Haley, best known for his ’80s bad boy roles in “The Bad News Bears” and “Breaking Away,” creates a sympathetic character out of the creepy McGorvey. Like Brad and Larry, Ronny also acts like a childyes, this is another bit of reverse sexism where all the guys are flawedbut even after we see how disturbed he is, you can’t help but feel bad for him when Larry’s harassment goes overboard in a predictable plot twist telegraphed very early on. Even so, the few scenes between these two underrated actors are more memorable than Winslet and Wilson’s steamy sex scenes.
The film ends on an enigmatic but hopeful note, making up for its unsatisfying climax, but it’s very likely that “Little Children” will be one of those films that has more impact on repeat viewings.
The Bottom Line:
Little Children opens in New York and L.A. on October 6, but will get an advance preview on Saturday, September 30, at the New York Film Festival.