Early in Little Children, Todd Field’s adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel, Sarah (Kate Winslet) is in the park with her little girl, along with several other suburban housewives and their children. She’s with this group nearly every weekday afternoon, but has no friends among them. They look on her as an overeducated snob (because she usually reads instead of joining in their gossip) and a disorganized parent (because she often forgets her daughter’s snacks). And Sarah, who has abandoned her PhD dissertation to settle into an uncomfortable marriage, keeps reminding herself to rein in her revulsion toward these chattering philistines by taking an anthropological view of them.

Field makes it clear he’s on her side: a key shot is a close-up of Sarah sitting on the grass on the right half of the screen while the others are on a bench on the left half, far from the camera and slightly out of focus. Their distance from our heroine, the straight horizontal line they compose, and the irritating buzz of their sniping manifest their spiritual inferiority to her. They might as well be monkeys howling away on the limb of a tree. If this isn’t exactly anthropology, it’s comic sociology bordering on zoology. Throughout the film, this satirical method elicits some legitimate laughs, as when a game played by over-the-hill suburban jocks is photographed in slow motion, with mock martial music and the trumpetings of bull elephants on the soundtrack. And it’s amusingly appropriate that the film’s wryly analytical narration should be delivered by Will Lyman, of PBS’s Frontline, in his best furrowed-brow manner.

But just as often, this satire becomes strained and factitious, undermining the movie’s basic realism. One of the two main story lines concerns the paranoia injected into the neighborhood by the presence of a sex offender who has exposed himself to children and done prison time. When he’s spotted in a community pool, all the mothers scream for their children to get out, and the mass exodus is as choreographed as a Busby Berkeley number. We know we are meant to laugh, but at what? Parents concerned about child molestation? After all, the camera followed the ex-con (wearing a snorkeling mask) into the water and showed us that he is gazing at the legs of children. Are the mothers, whatever their hysteria, wrong to think he’s scoping out a fresh victim? The satire (if that’s what it is) disrupts the movie rather than enhancing it.

But I’m happy to add that all the above constitutes God’s war on mortal perfection, for without these sporadic outbreaks of smug facetiousness, Little Children would be a minor masterpiece. Whenever Field and Perrotta (who collaborated on the script) aren’t observing and deriding suburbanites in groups but are concentrating on individuals-on Sarah; on her lover Brad (psychological sibling to John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom); on Brad’s pal Larry, an ex-cop with terrible memories of the accidental killing of a child; and even on the child molester, Ronnie, who is ashamed of his perversion but smirkingly stoking it-the movie proves discomfiting, poignant, unpredictable, occasionally shocking, and always fascinating.

Why does the script combine two seemingly disparate stories: Sarah’s adultery and Larry’s vigilante war on Ronnie? The title explains this. All the main characters are stunted emotionally, not just Ronnie, whose perversion is a grotesque exaggeration of the other characters’ immaturity. It’s difficult to grow up when your own emotions are hidden from you by a defensive sense of shame. Larry knows perfectly well that he feels guilty about having taken a boy’s life, but until the end of the movie, he doesn’t realize how egregiously he’s compensating by persecuting Ronnie. The molester knows that his mother’s devouring love has twisted his sexuality, but that doesn’t keep him from victimizing an equally stunted and needy young woman on a blind date. Brad knows that he longs for the jock glory of his college days but can’t find any serious adult interest to take its place.

So none of these men is totally lacking in self-knowledge, but self-knowledge is not enough when one lacks the will to act on it. The reason Sarah is the suffering center of this story is not that she has more self-knowledge or feels more guilt than the others (in fact, her dolt of a husband has given her more reason for estrangement than Brad, with his supportive and beautiful wife, can claim). It’s rather that Sarah’s adultery is an attempt, however misguided, to realize herself and to grow through such self-realization. Whereas all the men on view tend to be furtive, Sarah is feckless but hopeful in the way she mythologizes her romance with Brad. And, amusingly, she has to misread Madame Bovary to a local book club because, thinking of herself as a feminist yet recognizing her kinship to Flaubert’s heroine, she has to regard Emma Bovary as a feminist, too. But Emma and Sarah are truly alike in a much sadder way: both are romantics at odds with middle-class banality.

By caressing the details of individual lives, Field achieves moments memorable in their blend of irony and compassion: the way Sarah discovers Brad’s physical beauty by watching the chattering housewives watching him; the abashed look on her face when, trying to coax a hug out of Brad just to impress the ladies of the park, she receives a kiss as well and doesn’t know how to take it; the “oh, whatever” look on the face of Brad’s little son when his absconding father asks him to take off his silly cap before a farewell hug.

The soundtrack is unusually gratifying: the whirr of cicadas, the rush of an oncoming summer storm among tree branches, the pygmy fanfares of cell phones, the flurry of overlapping conversations around the community pool mixed with the cries of children splashing away.

Appropriately, Patrick Wilson as Brad, Noah Emmerich as Larry, Jennifer Connelly as Brad’s wife, Jackie Earle Haley as Ronnie, and especially Phyllis Somerville as Ronnie’s mother all give good performances that make us feel we are learning all we need to know about their fairly simple characters. But Kate Winslet, as the more complex Sarah, is excellent precisely because she makes us feel we can never understand this woman. A queen bee as she coaxes Brad into spreading sunblock on her back as a prelude to seduction, hungry but terrified at the moment when she can consummate the affair, embarrassed but eager to rationalize her own folly by explicating Madame Bovary to the book group, Winslet makes this woman the most poignant sort of human being: a person who has mislaid her own destiny.

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
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Published in the 2007-02-09 issue: View Contents
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