Two strong central female roles are at the heart of ‘Little Children’, Todd Field's follow-up to the acclaimed ‘In the Bedroom’. Kate Winslet plays Sarah, a graduate stuck in an airless marriage to a never-home businessman with an addiction to internet porn. Jennifer Connelly, as Kathy, is Sarah’s opposite: a successful documentarist trying to persuade her layabout husband, Brad (Patrick Wilson), to sit the bar exam and become a lawyer.
Sarah meets Brad at the local playground, their days spent caring for their offspring and growing further apart from their partners. Before the eyes of a clique of neighbour mothers - who occupy their time with reading groups and gossip - they begin a tentative friendship. Then, secretly, a passionate affair.
Meanwhile, Brad’s friend Larry (Noah Emmerich) stirs up vigilante action against Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), newly returned to the neighbourhood after serving time for exposing himself to a minor. The sultry summer days blister into a heatwave; feelings run high; jealousies, violence and recriminations bubble under the surface.
Despite its subject matter, ‘Little Children’ begins in an almost humorous vein. A laconic voiceover emphasises the ironies and idiosyncrasies of humour nature. Fields populates his film with stock characters, but seems to do so deliberately. He has fun shuffling the clichés.
Gradually, the tone becomes darker. As the locals demonise Ronnie, their own flaws and failings are thrown into sharper relief. Sure, Ronnie is an unpleasant individual, but is the threat he poses as great as Larry paints it? After all, everyone’s guilty of something: Sarah and Brad are adulterers; Sarah’s husband is as sexually dysfunctional as Ronnie; Kathy sidelines family for career; Larry is a hypocrite and a bully. And yet all of them - even Ronnie - are capable of humanity. People are complex and complicated, Little Children seems to say; there's good and bad in all of us.
Fair enough. But this doesn't disguise the film’s faults. Fields relies too heavily on cyphers. Sarah’s husband is one-dimensional. The members of the reading group are straight out of central casting. The voiceover feels increasingly forced. The denouement is clumsy, character motivations going off the rails for the sake of lumbering melodrama.
Still, ‘Little Children’ boasts some terrific performances, moments of genuine erotic frisson, and, for the most part, a refreshing lack of judgementalism.