All this is grim, but not pedestrian.
“Little Children” demands that you pay attention – and you will. Directed by Todd Field at an often leisurely pace that is at odds with its subject matter, even the slow periods bristle with portent. What has happened and what is to come, both quite unpredictable, hold an intent and silent audience. Make no mistake, this is not a pleasant movie, but the director and his excellent cast dig deeply beneath the surface of things until we in the audience begin to ask of ourselves, “How would we have behaved in this situation, or that?” His only mistake is that he fairly wrings his hands to make his points.
Sarah (Kate Winslet) and Richard Pierce are the married parents of Lucy (Sadie Goldstein). Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) and Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) are the married parents of Aaron (Ty Simpkins). Sarah takes Lucy to the playground each day while her husband Richard takes breaks from his at home work to interact with internet porn. Brad takes Aaron to the playground each day while his wife Kathy makes documentary films.
The playground itself is a battleground of the privileged. Four young mothers, all regulars, are bored, and they are mean. Sarah sits on a separate bench, physically removed from the others in mute disgust at their rigid mothering habits, silently reminding herself to “think like an anthropologist.” Motherhood bores her. Brad, “the Crown Prince” of the playground plays endless games of pretend with his son. Fatherhood becomes him. Sarah and Brad begin an affair that starts with picnics beside the town pool and ends in bed while their children take naps.
Meanwhile, legal notice has been given to the community that a pedophile named Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley) has returned from prison to live with his mother. In addition to putting watchful mothers on edge, his presence ignites rage in Brad’s friend Larry (Noah).
Ronnie and Brad have in common the fact that they are both failures. Sarah and Brad have in common the fact that they haven’t finished what each had begun – Sarah’s dissertation hasn’t been written; Brad can’t seem to pass the bar. Each lacks the stuff to finish. Brad comes alive not so much in the affair, which can only ruin his quite pleasant life, but in community touch football games and skateboarding. Sarah comes alive in the affair and is perfectly willing to have it become her life.
All this is grim, but not pedestrian. Watch these actors. Kate Winslet burrows into Sarah’s core. Patrick Wilson makes Brad a Peter Pan. Jennifer Connelly is exactly right as the hardworking wife who comes home to an empty vessel. The movie is nearly stolen by Jackie Earle Haley as the pedophile who can’t help himself and by Phyllis McGorvey in a heartbreaking performance as his mother. These fine actors force us to confront our feelings about adultery, privilege, suburban boredom, domesticity, competition, judgmentalism, and tolerance. In two hours, we have all become anthropologists.
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