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Echoes of "Madame Bovary" in the American suburbs. Sarah's in a loveless marriage to an advertising executive, long days with her young daughter at the park and the pool, wanting more. Brad is an immature househusband, married to a flinty documentary filmmaker. Ronnie is just out of prison - two years for indecent exposure to a minor - living with his elderly mother, May; Larry is a retired cop, fixated on driving Ronnie away. Sarah and Brad connect, a respite of adult companionship at the pool. Ronnie and Larry have their demons. Brad should be studying for the bar; Larry misses his job; Ronnie's mom thinks he needs a girlfriend. Sarah longs to refuse to be trapped in an unhappy life. Where can these tangled paths lead? Written by
"You couldn't change the past," the narrator of Little Children tells us at the movie's close, "but the future could be a different story." The lives of the men and women who live in the very paragon of bland suburbia appear to be crunchy (and even somewhat unforgiving) on the outside, but inside they break, well, just like a little girl. A veritable sea of emotions, from love, despair, neglect, and hate churns below their pristine, everything-in-its-place veneers.
The placidity of this particular neighborhood is jolted by two things: the arrival of a sex offender (Jackie Earle Haley) and the emergence of a relationship between married-but-not-to-each-other Sarah and Brad; both events, directly and obliquely, are remarked upon by the nattering nabobs of middle-class conservatism in the town, particularly the rather particular hausfraus and soccer moms.
Sarah Pierce (Winslet) is a distant mother and wife; when she and her daughter Lucy visit the neighborhood playground, she sits away from the other mothers. As an indirect result, Lucy doesn't play with the other boys and girls on the see-saws or merry-go-round - she just plays quietly. Meanwhile, as the empty-headed women babble to each other (but not Sarah), a newcomer enters their midst - a stay-at-home father, Brad, whom they mockingly call (behind his back, of course) "The Prom King." Sarah's marriage seems empty and devoid of purpose. Brad, for his part, is married to a breadwinner - his wife Karen (Jennifer Connelly) is a documentary filmmaker who's completely absorbed with her work. Like Sarah, Brad is a little emotionally distant from his wife and their son, Aaron, so it's no wonder he and Sarah become constant companions throughout the long, hot suburban summer, spending their days either at the park or at the public pool.
The other main story thread involves the community's reaction to the presence of Ronnie McGorvey, convicted as a sex offender for flashing a young boy. Soon, there are fliers on telephone poles, and an angry outrage group is formed, led by ex-policeman Larry (Noah Emmerich), who seems to be more upset with Ronnie's existence than anyone else in the town.
At its core, the movie is about repression and "settling" - staying with someone just because they provide you comfort but no love is no reason at all, the film explains. Committing adultery just might be an okay act, even with children involved, as long as it means a better life for the principals. Brad and Sarah transform from nodding acquaintances to good friends who take care of their kids together (Aaron and Lucy even grow to become friends, although up to that point they'd both been loners.) When the opportunity arises for them to become more, though, they take it - an act that's not easy to conceal from the prying eyes of the neighbors, let alone their respective spouses and certainly not their children. How long, if at all, can they possibly hope to maintain the charade that they're just friends? Perhaps the thought that their own, current marriages are charades in their own right gives Sarah and Brad reason to believe they can perpetuate the sham against their spouses.
Meanwhile, Ronnie attempt to cope with living as a sex offender. He lives with his doting mom, who believes there is good in everyone; she realizes that what Ronnie did was wrong, but that it was an accident, and she tries in vain to protect him from the rest of the community, which is by and large out to lynch him. But the brilliant caveat here is that Ronnie is by no means a victim - not only did he do what he was accused of (although he shows remorse and a lot of self-hate), but he shows that he's capable of more of the same.
In fact, that's the genius of Todd Field's film - not only are people flawed, but they're believably flawed. In Little Children, people make decisions for selfish reasons, and there's no wondrous epiphany that somehow saves the soul and good standing of the poor decision maker - people live with what they've done, or they don't make the decision in the first place.
Winslet and Haley were nominated for their work here; the first-ever nomination for Haley, who was probably best known as Kelly Leak in the Bad News Bears films. He's eerie and creepy and utterly human as Ronnie McGorvey. You never really feel sympathy for the deviant, but you might feel a twinge of unease. For Winslet, this was the fifth nomination for the beauteous Briton, and it's astounding that she hasn't yet won. Then again, she's only 31 years old! Little Children is a stark, seamless, unsettling story that grabs a hold of your psyche and twists it almost to the breaking point, relying on strong performances by Winslet, Haley, Wilson, and Emmerich as well as a tortuous plot that provides quite a jaded look at the tranquility of suburban life.
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