Director Todd Field is like a precocious kid with a chemistry set and a dangerous curiosity. He (and novelist Tom Perrotta) dump the most volatile elements into a test tube and gradually turn up the Bunsen burner just to find out what will happen.
What happens is Little Children, the incendiary tale of two couples afflicted by postmarital sexual boredom whose lives intersect with that of an outcast bogeyman in their painfully small town.
Brad (Patrick Wilson) can't get it together to pass his bar exam, to the chagrin of his achiever-wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), so he role-reverses as caretaker of their son on daily outings to the local playground. Brad is the prom king of that otherwise all-female swing set, where diffident Sarah (Kate Winslet) - on a dare - is the first woman who talks to him. She gets a hug for her effort - and much more.
These are quirky people. Brad has a thing about watching skateboarders. His son insists on wearing a jester's hat everywhere, even in the swimming pool. Sarah tries to rein in her sexual desire even as she reads a D.H. Lawrence biography and gets to the heart of Madame Bovary at her book club: It's not about Mme. B's cheating, it's about her desperate hunger for an alternative to a life of unhappiness.
When Brad and Sarah regularly meet up with their kids at the pool, it's only a matter of time before chastity gives way to suntan-oil sensuality ("Would you get my back?"). Their torrid love affair includes the season's hottest nude scene - in Sarah's laundry room, of all places.
Meanwhile, posters all over town warn of a recently released sex offender (Jackie Earle Haley) in their midst. Also seen last year in All the King's Men but best remembered for his portrayal of Kelly Leak in The Bad News Bears, Haley doesn't slink onto the screen until almost an hour into the film but, once he does, he dominates the dramatic and emotional tension the rest of the way. He gives an outstanding, wrenchingly vulnerable performance.
For that matter, the film is superbly acted throughout by Wilson, Winslet, and Connelly (who shines in a fab dinner-party scene, when she finally realizes Brad and Sarah's infidelity).
Director Field does a delicate, nonjudgmental balancing act with Haley's odious/sympathetic character - and, indeed, overall. Sensationalism aside, the film isn't really about pedophilia. It's about human weaknesses that devour individuals, not to mention the myths of suburban marriage.
With Children, as with his 2001 debut film, In the Bedroom, Field dissects real people in real relationships, uncomfortably close to home, weaving love, lust, and disillusionment into the mix and letting the social and moral chips fall where they may.
The naturalistic acting, measured tempo, and excellent editing all contribute to a powerful, multilayered experience marred only by the device of a semisatirical narrator, the melodramatic ending, and the overacting of Brad's obsessed pal, Larry (Noah Emmerich).
But that brings us full circle back to Little Children's Bunsen burner, whose flame (like life itself) is not so terrifying for its actuality as for its unpredictability.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Barry Paris is a film critic for the Post-Gazette.
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