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Little Children

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Play time for Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson
  • Play time for Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson

Distilled to its essence, Little Children is another sober, complex, thoughtful drama about middle-class suburban privilege, angst and tragedy.

There's the grad-school-educated, stay-at-home mom Sarah (Kate Winslet) and her businessman husband, who whacks off to Internet porn. At the playground she meets and begins an affair with buff and handsome Brad (Patrick Wilson), whom the other clucking hens in the neighborhood mommy klatch call the "prom king." Brad plays Mr. Mom to his son and studies to take the bar exam for the third time while his wife (Jennifer Connelly), a PBS-style documentarian, supports them all.

Larry (Noah Emmerich) is a troubled former cop who killed a boy wielding a toy gun. Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley) just got out of jail for exposing himself to an underage girl. He lives with his mother and tries to avoid Larry, a belligerent one-man vigilante squad who plasters the neighborhood with posters of Ronnie's face.

It's all finely acted and intelligently made by director Todd Field (In the Bedroom), who co-wrote the screenplay with novelist Tom Perrotta (Election), who wrote the book on which Little Children is based. But Field presents his material so steadily, with so little vivacity, that it's probably more compelling as a conversation piece than as a dramatic experience.

Among its measured slices of life is a book-chat group for older ladies that a friend of Sarah's persuades her to attend. They discuss Madame Bovary, but only Sarah, who's just shy of her Ph.D. in literature, understands it: The titular heroine made bad choices, and now she's trapped in a furtive and degrading affair. If you didn't get the point of Little Children up until then, consider that discussion to be your Monarch Notes.

Field's movie is as much a work of literature as a work of cinema, which is clearly what he and Perrotta intended. It's about the inescapability of character, and its climax is rife with metaphor and epiphany, like when Sarah finds her little girl transfixed by moths drawn to a streetlight. We are who we are, this moment tells us, and all we can do is to make the very best of it. This works for some of the characters. But for others it's impossible, and nothing demonstrates this better than Ronnie's desperately sad date with a mentally ill woman (Jane Adams) whom he meets through a personals ad written by his mother.

Little Children feels a bit like Lars von Trier's experimental Dogville, only with walls and buildings (von Trier drew chalk outlines on a bare stage to represent his besieged town). As in Dogville, there's a narrator who's not a character in the movie. He analyzes, moralizes and fills in some narrative interstitials with an almost ethereal omniscience. Little Children is at once sociology and dark social satire, the sort of movie that tries too hard but that you're glad to see, a respite from all the crap that doesn't try at all.

Starts Fri., Jan. 5

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