Little Children, the new film from In The Bedroom director Todd Field, unfolds in a contemporary suburbia where the quirky meets the profound a little easily, and where abject darkness morphs into the blinding light of a pop mysticism familiar to anyone who's seen American Beauty. There are certainly worse places to visit, but don't go expecting uncharted territory here.
Our main players are drab Sarah (Kate Winslet) and pretty boy Brad (Patrick Wilson, looking very Paul Newman-ish circa mid-'50s), two vaguely frustrated members of the community who find themselves involved in a strange, adulterous affair with one another.
As the movie's title suggests, there's more than a touch of the infantile in all of the adult characters here — Sarah's too much of a kid to deal with her own child and fancies her extramarital fling as qualifying her for tragically larger-than-life Madame Bovary status, while almost cartoonishly arrested adolescent Brad lives life with one foot firmly rooted back in high school.
There's much more going on here as well, and in many way it's the fringe characters — all of whom are "at war with their own desires" — who turn the movie into something genuinely interesting, as it continues to shift in a variety of curious and unexpected ways.
At the core of it all is the registered sex offender Ronnie (a remarkable Jackie Earle Haley) who's returned to live in this sleepy, child-crammed neighborhood, and with whom everyone is completely obsessed. The crises come a little too thick and fast by the end, but director Field (working from Tom Perrotta's 2004 novel) does a commendable job keeping all those juggled balls in the air right up until the last minute.
Little Children (R) Stars Kate Winslet, Jennifer Connelly, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley and Noah Emmerich. Opens Feb. 2 at local theaters. 3.5 stars