The Austin Chronicle

Little Children

Rated R, 130 min. Directed by Todd Field. Starring Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Gregg Edelman, Jackie Earle Haley, Phyllis Somerville, Noah Emmerich, Sadie Goldstein, Raymond J. Barry, Jane Adams.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 5, 2007

All is not well in suburbia. To begin with, Ronnie McGorvey (Haley, the once-upon-a-time hesher epicenter of the original The Bad News Bears), a just-paroled pedophile, has moved back into the house of his elderly mother (Somerville). Larry (Emmerich), the neighborhood ex-cop with a flash-point temper and a guilty secret, takes it upon himself to form a one-man neighborhood watch against the childlike Ronnie (which succeeds only in making the whole neighborhood anxious), while two married couples orbit one another in ways both literal and metaphoric, like heartsick heavenly bodies pockmarked by years of steadily mounting disappointment and the slow, awful ticking-away of joy, passion, and life itself. At the heart of Field's complexly interwoven film is Sarah (Winslet), a wonderful, woeful creature of sly intellect who realizes all too well that her marriage to finance whiz Richard (Edelman) was one big mistake, and not just because he's more interested in surfing Internet porn than making love to his wife. Sarah's lot changes dramatically when she takes her precocious daughter, Lucy (Goldstein), to the park and meets cute with handsome stay-at-home dad Brad (Wilson) while "knockout" mom (Connelly) is busy making PBS documentaries. Sarah and Brad merge their kids' playdates, and from hereon in it's only a matter of time before the modern Emma Bovary and her should-have-been Mr. Right are getting down in Sarah's laundry room only to discover that while their archetypically American lives may yet have a second act, it could well end up as a tragedy. Little Children is emotionally riveting, with converging storylines and some of the best acting of the past year. Winslet's portrayal of a smart woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown is a powerful, affecting work, and Haley's bizarrely stunted manboy is by turns pathetic, chilling, and just flat-out sad. His performance here will give you the creeps for longer than you'd like, but it's Winslet who is the heart and soul of Little Children, and when she makes a desperate, final bid to reclaim her soul, it's both horrifying and heart-rending. To its credit, the script (by Field and Tom Perrotta, who wrote the novel) never takes the easy way out, chiefly because for these characters there is no easy way out. They may be trapped in prisons of their own devising, but no one seems to have much of an escape plan. Which only makes it that much more painfully true to life. What keeps Field's film from being the emotional powerhouse it could have been lies less with the direction (a wry narrator, Will Lyman, is well-used for expositional purposes) than with the sheer girth of the story, which has so many interrelated paths and so much suburban angst to deal with that it bogs down midway through (Connelly, for one, gets short shrift here). It recovers, eventually, but the bulky melodrama spreads throughout the last half of the film like an acrid and unromantic miasma or like the shards of shattered marriage vows cast helter-skelter into an unknowable future.

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