By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- Sarah (Kate Winslet) tells herself she's "a researcher studying the behavior of boring suburban women," an anthropologist of the neighborhood. It helps her cope with a routine built around her toddler's needs, at least for a little while.
So if she gets up and talks to the dad the other moms at the park have christened "the Prom King," that's just another way of proving she's more alive than they are. And if she asks him to write down his number, she knows it will scandalize her friends.
But somehow they wind up kissing, right there by the swings. It's a joke between two strangers that carries them somewhere else altogether, and then it's not a joke anymore. Now she'll have to avoid this place. They all will.
And that's how director Todd Field's strenuously grown-up "Little Children" begins, with its two main characters embarking on the road to infidelity.
All of the adult characters struggle with sexuality and responsibility. Sarah's husband Richard (Gregg Edelman) spends his time logging on to sluttykay.com, occasionally wearing panties on his head.
The Prom King, Brad (Patrick Wilson), is a stay-at-home father, vaguely emasculated by the position. He's supposedly sitting for his bar exams for the third time, though he devotes his study time to hanging out watching the kids skateboard outside the library. His gallingly attractive wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), is a documentary filmmaker.
And then there's Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), the neighborhood pervert, a sexual deviant who just can't help himself -- but perhaps isn't as dangerous as everybody thinks.
The movie is based on the novel by Tom Perrotta (who also co-wrote the screenplay). It retains his use of an omniscient third-person narrator, an unfashionable device that lends a detached sardonic edge to the intimate subject matter. Field -- who acted in Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" -- has mentioned the great director's "Barry Lyndon" as an influence here, though Kubrick's "Lolita" is closer in spirit to "Little Children's" beady, satiric take on sexual compulsion.
Field is a rare American director who appreciates the virtues of breathing room: he allows scenes to develop in their own sweet time, trusting that we will find the undercurrents of human behavior as fascinating as he does. Even in the comparatively sketchy relationship between Brad and Kathy, Field communicates volumes of mistrust through something as subtle as an unspoken thought.
But as in Field's first film, "In the Bedroom" -- a study in grief that turned into vigilante fantasy -- there's a tension in "Little Children" between the filmmaker's generous faith in his characters and the more bottom-line demands of commercial moviemaking.
It's a shame, because in general Field doesn't take the easy out. Demonized at first, Haley is allowed some space to get under the pockmarked skin of his suburban monster. Indeed, Ronnie's relationship with his mom (a fine performance by stage veteran Phyllis Somerville) is the best example of a functional family relationship in the movie. Haley also pulls off the movie's most challenging scene, a blind date where he reveals the best and worst of himself, his compassion and his contempt.
But then there are scenes such as Sarah's spirited book club defense of "Madame Bovary," interpreting the doomed Emma as a feminist heroine rejecting a life of conformist misery. That's fine, but it's also an obvious parallel for Sarah -- and the movie dodges a number of questions the interpretation raises.
Most of us live somewhere on the intersection between desire and propriety, looking for wriggle room even as we pay lip service to standards we struggle to keep. Such hypocrisies are grist to the satirist, and Field and Perrotta tease out the ironies without patronizing their flawed and feckless characters.
Still, it's a problem that Richard (Gregg Edelman) virtually disappears from the movie (what did Sarah ever see in him?), and Field makes heavy weather of Ronnie's relentless persecution by Brad's buddy Larry (Noah Emmerich) ("Did you ever think about the term 'Homeland Security'?" Larry wants to know). These flaws are exacerbated by a hysterical ending that undermines much of what has gone before.
We're all little children at heart, the film woefully concludes: running scared, crying for mommy. It's an infantile ending for such a studiously grown-up movie.
Kate Winslet plays a frustrated stay-at-home mom in "Little Children."
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