When characters in movies beat against the stifling bars of suburbia, they tend to be men: Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate and Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. So when a woman rebels, it's news. And that break from the norm is what makes Little Children so enjoyably unexpected.
Director Todd Field's (In the Bedroom) adaptation of Tom Perrotta's novel is a bird of a different feather in the genre of suburban ennui. An improvement on Perrotta's superficial swipes, Fields trades the author's smug cynicism for something altogether more human.
It is not simply suburbia that sticks in married-with-child Sarah's (Kate Winslet) craw. There's the little girl to whom she can't seem to relate, the other playground mommies who perform the job of mothering with robotic efficiency, and a husband who has developed a fixation with an Internet vixen named Slutty Kay.
Sarah's glazed depression is broken by the appearance at the community playground of handsome stay-at-home dad Brad (Patrick Wilson), a blond, toned dreamboat who the other covetous mothers refer to as "the Prom King."
Like Sarah, Brad also has gone emotionally AWOL from a dissatisfying home life. While Sarah chafes against the mommy bit, Brad's bête noire is the breadwinner racket. His wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), wants to put him on a more socially acceptable track than his present stay-at-home dad role. All Brad wants to do is watch the teenage skateboarders practice their moves instead of studying for the bar exam.
Despite huge differences between them, Sarah and Brad inevitably hook up. Field shows the momentary bliss of forgetting their woes in someone else's arms. But mostly the affair only serves to amplify their sadness and desperation as they momentarily escape adulthood disappointments by recapturing their former identities.
In some ways, their actions are not so different from the people around them. Everyone has a little balm to comfort them, whether it's the women at the park who look forward to their visit from the Prom King or Brad's PBS documentarian wife, whose film about Iraq is a reminder that things could be much, much worse.
Fields injects some topical Iraq War-related content into the film to suggest the problems of the world are larger than this little slice of upper-middle-class Massachusetts. That generosity of spirit extends to Field's characters. With their pitted skin and ungainly actions, selfishness and rampant delusions, his characters tend to court us with their sadness and then shock us with their realistically human flaws.
One of the most poignant examples of human loneliness is weasely convicted sex offender Ronald James McGorvey (Breaking Away's Jackie Earle Haley) who comes back home to live in his mother's house. Frail and outcast behind his swim mask at the town swimming pool, Ronald at first invites our sympathy. He soon repels it with a grotesque selfishness evident on a dysfunctional date with an adult woman.
Sympathetic portraits of pedophiles have become rather in vogue in art-house indies determined to goose any closet middlebrows in the audience. Todd Solondz's Happiness and the Kevin Bacon vehicle The Woodsman prominently featured sad-sack child molesters. But in Fields' film, Ronald is a fully realized human being who seems trapped in the same gloomy hell as the rest of Field's characters.
The very impulses that swamped In the Bedroom, making it into a maudlin, tasteful chamber piece about one family coping with the death of a child, saves Little Children. Far from the snarky satire that made Perrotta's novel go down a little hard, Little Children is a portrait of our times that refuses to crucify its characters so we can all sleep a little easier.