Something Rotten in the Suburbs of 'Little Children'

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 20, 2006

In "Little Children," the arrival of a convicted child molester in East Wyndam, Mass., triggers outrage throughout the community. But in this movie's reverse code, Ronnie the pedophile (Jackie Earle Haley) is practically one of the good guys.

We don't approve of his behavior, of course, but we empathize with a tormented soul who's hounded by high-minded citizens in a flurry of leaflets and sanctimony. And we understand who the real offenders are: people like Larry (Noah Emmerich), the obnoxious ex-cop who takes a bullhorn to Ronnie's house at night, and Mary Ann (Mary B. McCann), a frosty homemaker who denounces the pedophile before her regular gathering of playground moms.

Director Todd Field and co-writer Tom Perrotta (who adapted his book of the same name) have rigged our sympathies, making us root for whoever offends these high and mighty New Englanders. And they've done this in the service of a hugely absorbing social drama that is, by turns, excruciating, sad and sardonic. We're caught up in its emotional sweep, feeling compassion for all the pariahs, including Sarah (Kate Winslet) and Brad (Patrick Wilson), whose extramarital romance provokes gossipy tongues.

There's something irresistibly compelling about the movie's Olympian perspective -- the movie employs a narrator (Will Lyman, the voice of dozens of documentaries) -- which puts the flaws, graces and sins of suburbia into ironic context. (It should be noted, however, the filmmakers don't subscribe to the notion that a little narration goes a long way.) There's no essential difference, "Little Children" suggests, between Mary Ann, whose over-regimented life includes sex with her husband on Tuesdays, and Ronnie, whose idea of excitement is snorkeling among the kids at the local pool. At least Ronnie's aware of his issues; his valiant attempts to keep them under lock and key are his version of moral behavior.

As with his 2001 movie, "In the Bedroom," Field takes moral stock of a New England community, though the earlier film, which presented the case for vigilantism, centered on one family's response to an unpunished murderer. "Little Children" takes on subtler crimes, such as prejudice, self-deception and civic hysteria. And it's wider in scope, following the grand design of films like "Crash," in which a collection of unrelated characters are connected by thematic forces.

What links the well-to-do residents of East Wyndam is a deep-seated frustration. The happiness everyone seeks -- in jobs, marriages, relationships or sex lives -- seems to be missing. They're not so different from other communities, perhaps, but the movie shows how their protests and outrage against public scapegoats are plaintive echoes of their own personal turmoil.

Sarah seeks out Brad after her husband, Richard (Gregg Edelman), starts keeping virtual company with a porn site queen. Brad's wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), a documentary filmmaker, belittles him constantly for his failure to pass the bar exam. But it's a mark of the movie's benevolent spirit that we feel remorse when Kathy finally realizes how much she loves Brad -- right at the moment her husband is busy elsewhere, caressing Sarah's naked rump.

Winslet is extraordinarily good, transforming persuasively from a woman lost in herself to one radiantly in love. We're moved by the internal struggles she undergoes before allowing herself to feel that ecstasy. As the overgrown kid who'd rather be skateboarding than hitting the law books, Wilson (Raoul in "Phantom of the Opera" and the torturee in "Hard Candy") exudes a perfect air of arrested development. And though she's playing a one-note harpy -- at one point, telling a book-reading group that Madame Bovary is nothing more than a "slut" -- McCann plays that single tone with chilly precision. You can't imagine this movie without her.

The most affecting performances, however, come from East Wyndam's most feared household. Haley, a former teen star and original Bad News Bear, shows the debilitating struggle between Ronnie's reflexive perversions and his humanity. And Phyllis Somerville is a subtle triumph as Ronnie's mother, May, who refuses to be intimidated by the bullies outside her door. She never makes May's actions, despite extraordinary circumstances, seem like anything more than mommy business as usual.

Not surprisingly, most of the scenes involving mother and son are the toughest on the audience, whether for heartbreak, tension, comic irony -- or all three. There's something amusing but devastating about May's advice to Ronnie not to mention his sexual problems at a first date. That ensuing dinner with Sheila (Jane Adams), a formerly wounded soul trying to get back on her feet, becomes one of the movie's most touching and shocking developments. But the subtext, that Ronnie's undergoing this ordeal -- that's how the date feels to him -- to please his mother, the only woman who truly loves him, is the closest he can get to heroism. That's enough to choke you up right there.

Little Children (130 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for sex scenes, nudity and profanity.

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