Don’t be put off by the sweetie-poo title. Adultery, Internet porn, pedophilia, mutilation and murder all figure in Little Children. This unnervingly funny and quietly devastating film — director Todd Field’s first since his smash 2001 debut with In the Bedroom — pulls you in like a magnetic-force field. For starters, the movie refuses to slavishly butt-kiss its source, the justly acclaimed 2004 novel by Tom Perrotta (Election). Perrotta isn’t pissed; he joined Field in the nip-tuck process in the hope of creating something freshly fierce. Mission accomplished. Except for a few clumsy slips, especially at the end, the film rides its dramatic challenges in perfect pitch.
A never-better Kate Winslet goes so deep into her character you can almost feel her nerve endings. Her Sarah is a former college feminist shocked to find herself a clueless wife and mom married to a jerk (Gregg Edelman) whom she catches jerking off to the Slutty Kay Web site. The film’s narrator (Will Lyman of PBS’s Frontline) provides the right note of ironic wit, even as the plot gets darker.
Field shows his mastery early, in a park scene with Sarah and three other moms ogling Brad (Patrick Wilson), a failed lawyer who tends to his son while his wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), makes TV documentaries. Sarah accepts the dare to get some details about this so-called Prom King. When they share an impulsive kiss, the two become social pariahs. It’s a daring, wickedly erotic scene. Winslet and Wilson turn up the heat, but each actor incisively shows how Sarah and Brad are victims of their own childish illusions. They spend the summer idling by the pool, she living as Madame Bovary in her lit-major fantasies, he preferring to watch teen skateboarders instead of studying for the bar.
It’s at the pool that the film’s central incident occurs. Sex offender Ronald James McGorvey, played by former child star Jackie Earle Haley of The Bad News Bears, has been living with his mother, May (Phyllis Somerville), since he served two years for flashing a child. Now Ronald has decided to swim with the kids. Police are called. Larry (Noah Emmerich), an ex-cop with his own secrets, harasses Ronald. It’s here that Field and Perrotta tackle a hot topic with more compassion than in the novel. The scenes between Ronald (Haley’s boldly implosive performance will haunt your dreams) and his mother (the magnificent Somerville deserves award attention) are no less scary for being achingly poignant. The laughs catch in your throat in Little Children. It’s more than a moral fable about the traps we set for ourselves by not growing up. Field performs a high-wire act that balances hard truth and hard-won tenderness. Most movies fade from the memory. This one sticks.