Displaying many of the same qualities that distinguished Todd Field’s debut feature, “In the Bedroom,” “Little Children” is a deftly made, emotionally acute and at times a tad fastidious examination of cracks in middle-class American family life. Adroitly adapted from Tom Perrotta’s fine and popular 2004 novel with every literary reference neatly in place, this New Line release about an affair between a married man and woman in a community troubled by the return of an unwelcome neighbor will tie many viewers, particularly women, up in knots, and should follow in the critically and commercially successful footsteps of its director’s previous picture.
Literary feel is established at the outset by the dry, oh-so-faintly superior tone of the narration (commentary’s faintly “Barry Lyndon”-ish quality shows it’s not for nothing that Field acted for Stanley Kubrick and now employs as associate producer longtime Kubrick colleague Leon Vitali). What at first seems an apparent narrative crutch increases in amusement with abundance, to the point that it’s missed when dropped through the long midsection.
Dramatic attention alights upon four women watching their young children at a playground, three nattering types and one outsider, Sarah (Kate Winslet), a more pensive observer with little patience for extended discussion of toddler issues. The three cackling hens go into a dither at the arrival of a long-absent young father so dreamy they’ve dubbed him the Prom King. They’ve never dared speak to him as he’s played with his little son, so Sarah delights in betting she can get his phone number. Instead, in a beautifully played scene that locks the viewer into the protags’ story, they have a delicate, probing chat which ends with them briefly kissing in front of the children and other women.
There’s no doubt where this is going, but it takes a while getting there. Through the hot summer, Sarah and the clean-cut jock (Patrick Wilson) whose name is Brad (changed from Todd in the book, perhaps by a director uncomfortable with too many Todds around) meet with their respective kids amid hundreds of other similar folk at the large community pool. Gradually, their dissatisfaction with their superficially contented lives seep to the surface. Sarah has a master’s degree in English lit and never imagined herself as a suburban mom married to a successful businessman (Gregg Edelman), especially one she’s just walked in on pleasuring himself to the Slutty Kay Web site with a pair of panties adorning his face like a gas mask.
Brad, married to a striking PBS documentary filmmaker, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), is unenthusiastically anticipating taking the bar exam for the third time; when he’s supposedly studying nights at the library, he’s instead hanging with skateboarders or practicing for the police football team with his ex-cop buddy Larry (Noah Emmerich).
Another guy with too much downtime, Larry with boorish zeal leads the local protest against the return home of a convicted sex offender, Ronald James McGorvey. Latter is very effectively played by Jackie Earle Haley, a teen standout in “The Bad News Bears” and “Breaking Away” absent from the bigscreen for 23 years; he’s also in the upcoming “All the King’s Men.” A creepy, ferrety-looking man, McGorvey freaks out the moms one day by jumping in among the kids at the public pool.
Principal attention naturally remains on the central couple, who 55 minutes in begin coupling in sweaty but, at least for the viewer, unerotic frenzies during the day when their spouses are away and their kids are napping. All goes well until the two unadvisedly decide to dine together with their respective spouses, when a slip of the tongue confirms Kathy’s suspicions.
Still, the pic spends an unexpected amount of time with ex-con Ronald, whose doting mother (the wonderful Phyllis Somerville) encourages him to date again. This leads to a startlingly tender, if ultimately dismaying, dinner scene between Ronald and the emotionally damaged Sheila (Jane Adams, terrific), and Ronald’s path eventually comes to cross those of the other characters in a way that will have most mothers in the audience cringing.
Like “In the Bedroom,” “Little Children,” at well over two hours, is somewhat long for an intense, intimate drama, and arguments could run many ways concerning what could be tightened or excised. More than one TV newscast goes on at length, a docu interview Kathy conducts with the son of an Iraq war casualty seems notably dragged in, the football sessions are indulged and a women’s book club meeting devoted to “Madame Bovary” requires Sarah to address the issue of adultery in an almost absurdly on-point manner. At the same time, it could legitimately be said that all these scenes are good, and enrich the overall texture of the film.
Although Sarah is a conflicted, contemplative woman, she’s not particularly hard to read, meaning she’s not the most fascinating character Winslet has played of late. Appealing but glammed down to suit her domestic domain, the thesp anchors the film with a strong, intelligent performance. Wilson fills the bill as the handsome Peter Pan who has yet to grapple with the challenge of supporting a family, although the character could have used a hint of an edgy undercurrent or the suggestion of anxiety about his future.
Respective spouses are somewhat shortchanged, as one never learns what makes Connelly’s Kathy tick and Edelman as Sarah’s husband completely disappears for long stretches, to the point where one mistakenly imagines he’s been banished by his wife. One curious detail is Brad’s complaint that Sarah’s eyebrows are thicker than he likes, when Connelly, as his supposed physical ideal, has the thickest eyebrows of any woman around.
Pic’s craftsmanship reps a step forward from “In the Bedroom,” with Antonio Calvache’s lensing and David Gropman’s production design helping create a comfy everyday feel just waiting to be infected by the untoward actions of the characters. Tale is specifically set in East Wyndam, Mass., but was filmed in New York.