Little Children, based on a novel by Tom Perrotta, is an unusually powerful mess, a broad satire of suburban self-indulgence with little in the way of a consistent style, and with a character who’s serious business: a convicted child molester. The movie, directed by Todd Field (In the Bedroom) from a script he wrote with Perrotta, begins with flyers being tacked up around a playground: Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley) has moved back to town, to his aged mother’s house not far from all the swings and park benches. “It’s like having an alcoholic working in a bar,” someone clucks. Ronnie doesn’t appear onscreen for some time (he makes a lulu of an entrance), but the mere mention of a pedophile throws all the silly-sexy acting out (extramarital sneaking around, Internet porn) into stark relief. You see past the jokes, to a world in which no one can quite master his or her worst (or second- or third-worst) impulses: a world in which a would-be vigilante, the ex-police officer Larry (Noah Emmerich) is nearly as out of control as the man whose mother’s house he defaces; and a world in which a pair of illicit lovers leave their children scarily vulnerable.
Kate Winslet plays Sarah Pierce, a stay-at-home mom whose brain (she has a master’s in literature) is slowly ossifying. She has stopped taking care of herself, and there’s little between her and her husband (Gregg Edelman)—a man whose erotic life centers on a woman with a Webcam in Florida who calls herself “Slutty Kay.” Floating, glum, half-attentive to her child, Sarah stumbles into a wary but intense relationship with a stay-at-home dad, Brad (Patrick Wilson), a hunk who has failed the bar exam twice and is destined to fail it again. As the bills mount up and his wife (Jennifer Connelly) heads off to make socially committed TV documentaries, Brad watches skateboarders in the park and dreams of being a child again. They’re all children, really—Sarah, Brad, Larry, and, of course, the mama’s boy Ronnie who longs for the playground in more ways than one.
Little Children opens with overliterary narration, then the narrator drops out, and then he comes back for no discernible reason. Field acted in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and now, as a director, seems bent on pushing past the boundaries of realism but with no clear idea of what’s on the other side. But he and Perrotta are on to something: a vision of the world as a giant multiplex in which every person fancies him- or herself a character in a different kind of movie.
As Little Children skitters along, it gathers weight, like a snowball, until it finally knocks you cold. Winslet uses her lowest tones and makes her body an encumbrance—she’s beautifully, expressively slack. But the heart of the movie is the child molester and his childlike tormentor. Ronnie’s defenselessness can be heartbreaking, but to say that he’s not sentimentalized is putting it mildly: His blind date with a tousled basket case (the luminous Jane Adams) goes from rather pathetically touching to eerie to the stuff of nightmares. (In the novel, Perrotta pushed the issue and made Ronnie not just a molester but a murderer—too horrible for the genre.) Haley has barely any flesh on his skull. One moment, he’s a helpless little boy whining for his mommy; the next, he’s Nosferatu, his eyes aglow in hollow sockets, trying to fill a hole that can never, ever be filled. This is satire that doesn’t diminish its characters. It makes them bottomless.