Little Children, a second excursion into middle-class unease by Todd Field after his intelligent but overrated In the Bedroom, opens with a slow pan around a living room whose shelves are crowded with cheap china figurines of . . . little children. Twisted into insidious grins, their blood-red lips ooze a comic horror that will seep into the lives of the film's real kids, who are alternately overprotected and neglected by hapless parents -- more precisely, mothers.
The movie unfolds at a leisurely pace in the parks, pools, and leafy homes of a commuter town in Massachusetts, an idyllic suburb where people come to bury their dreams, and in so doing warp them into nightmares.
Little Children posits a town full of hypocrites busily persecuting their local child molester (a compellingly creepy Jackie Earle Haley, who played an equally slimy bastard in All the King's Men) so as not to face up to their own subterranean secrets and desires. Behind the happy family facade are husbands and fathers who wear panties on their heads while jerking off to computer porn and fail to satisfy their desperate housewives in the sack. Though there's genuine affection for the movie's wise, spunky old dames, Little Children is downright vicious toward its stay-at-home moms, ciphers who sit all day in the park, tut-tutting over snack protocol or giggling like virgins when a handsome dad shows up.
Chafing against this furtively unsavory group are Sarah (Kate Winslet) and Brad (Patrick Wilson), two unfulfilled young parents unhappily married to other people. After a blissful summer lounging at the public pool, they find themselves coupling sweatily in her laundry room on a regular basis -- until Brad's scarily competent wife (Jennifer Connelly) smells a rat.
Adapted by Field and Tom Perrotta from the novel by Perrotta (who also wrote the satire that became Alexander Payne's Election), Little Children divides its time evenly between melodrama and black comedy -- uneasy bedfellows under most conditions, but especially in a movie that solicits sympathy for its wounded souls. Where Perrotta is a born satirist, Field works most comfortably within the frame of earnest realist dramas. A former actor himself, he draws uniformly smooth performances from an unwieldy ensemble. Winslet, her ripe beauty bursting out of sensible dungarees and cardigans, makes us see how Sarah, an English lit graduate student until she threw it all away for life in hell, could fall for a chronically underachieving doofus like Brad. But this overly long movie, made sluggish by a superfluously novelistic narrator, feels divided against itself, driven by opposed impulses of tragedy and dark humor that make it impossible for us to identify with these lost souls' break for freedom or wait for them to grow up.