In the well-manicured town of East Wyndam, everything is carefully placed. Time is carefully scheduled, for park and swimming pool outings with the kids, book club meetings, and evening fitness walks. So when routine is disrupted, by a sex offender's homecoming, the town begins to feel a growing dis-ease. The "Committee of Concerned Parents"—an army of one—believes he knows the cure but, like the rest of the town, hasn't considered the consequences. They're all Little Children, in Todd Field's adaptation of Tom Perotta's seriocomic novel.
East Wyndam's adults constantly, haplessly, reveal the shallow depth of their parental "concern," more a competitive badge of pride than a function of loving attentiveness. As she contemplates an affair with hunky neighborhood dad Brad (Patrick Wilson), insecure mother Sarah (Kate Winslet) regards herself in the mirror. "Mommy, I have something for you," says her daughter (Sadie Goldstein). "I just need a second," Mom replies, but it's long enough for the moment and child to be gone.
A gaggle of neighborhood mommies are largely responsible for Sarah's insecurities: first by passive-aggressively impugning her parenting skills and then by childishly admiring Brad from across the park. Looking to deflate her rivals, Sarah takes the dare to chat up Brad, and before they know it, they've started a relationship they don't know how to stop.
The most attentive mommy in town has an unfortunately smothering influence. May (Phyllis Somerville) frets over her son Ronnie, the sex offender, while sending him mixed messages. Even as she belatedly encourages him to grow up, May coddles him and does his chores. With his difficulty finding a job, Ronnie (former child star Jackie Earle Haley) has all the time in the world—or thinks he does, anyway—leaving him unnervingly prone to impulses. An ill-advised trip to the pool and a date from hell (with Jane Adams, once again a deer in headlights) heap added stress onto the daily harrassment he receives from Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich).
Larry, a policeman who's "taking a little time off" from the force, compulsively fills his time by stalking Ronnie; without this pastime, Larry would have to confront his own demons. By contrast, living in fear of readily identifiable boogeymen is perversely comforting. When Larry asks Brad, "You ever think about homeland security?", it's impossible not to share their sinking feeling. Fear also manifests in the town's codependent husbands and wives: Sarah and Brad's perception of their dead-end marriages (little children notwithstanding) propel them toward the lively promises of something, or someone, new.
Field and Perotta, who share screenplay credit, get to have it both ways. A persistent third-person narrator (Frontline's Will Lyman, in delightfully wry mode) underscores the satire from an ironic remove while also penetrating character in preparation for comic and tragic reversals. Though often deftly amusing, the screenplay can also be thuddingly obvious in some of its themes (immature adults), allusions (book-club selection Madame Bovary), and lessons (May's admonishment to Ronnie "The things we love, the people we love, at any time can all be taken away...").
Little Children works because, more often than not, it has truth on its side. Truth also gives an advantage to an ensemble that's generous (Jennifer Connolly takes the supporting role of Wilson's wife) and versatile enough to nail the funny and sad beats with equal skill. That the narration and Field's God's-eye camera draw attention to the film's form doesn't detract from its function: to give us that "second" in the mirror before returning responsibly to our lives and communities.
[For Groucho's interview with Todd Field, click here.]