Written by Field with Tom Perrotta and adapted from Perrotta's novel, Little Children is the story of an insular Massachusetts suburb of late model SUVs and well-manicured parks where parents gather with their children to laze away the long, sunny summer days. Comfortable and secure, this plush little town nonetheless houses a citizenry of suspect emotional health. Fathers are mostly at work, commuting to the city for long professional hours. The older women discuss literary classics they don't understand. The young mothers watch their kids play and swap self-help advice. Stepford wives come to mind.
The movie's primary plot centers around Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet), a former graduate student in literature, now the mother of 3-year-old Lucy (Sadie Goldstein), whom she attends with an absent-mindedness that doesn't quite rise to neglect. Pointedly, when a sitter helps the child fashion a present for her mother, Lucy makes a frame for a picture of herself. Sarah's older husband Richard (Gregg Edelman) is absent and disconnected. He's also addicted to internet porn.
At the park swings one day, Sarah meets her male counterpart. Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) is a stay-at-home dad for 3-year-old Aaron (Ty Simpkins). His wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) is a successful documentary filmmaker. Brad has graduated from law school but flunked the bar twice. In an example of obviously arrested development, Brad watches teenagers skateboard at the park rather than go to the library to study as he tells Kathy. The couple think of themselves as happy, but Kathy controls the family's finances as ruthlessly as any 1950s husband. They have let their own child come between them, literally as well as figuratively. Aaron sleeps between them, and they no longer have a sex life. Casual acquaintance leads to torrid romance, and pretty soon Sarah and Brad are talking about a new life in another place. How they are going to pay the bills is never discussed, leaving their plans for running away together in the same universe with ideas concocted by teenagers.
An interwoven secondary plot in Little Children focus on Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), who returns to the community after being released from jail. Ronnie was imprisoned for exposing himself to children, and though he's in his forties and almost bald, he remains fundamentally a child himself. He's completely dysfunctional sexually, and he still calls his doting mother May (Phyllis Somerville), "Mommy." Ronnie is guilty and continually prone to the kind of behavior that sent him to prison. He probably isn't physically dangerous, however. But he's nonetheless made the target of excoriating public attacks by a group of townspeople led by former policeman Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich). The lives of all the principal characters cross during the summer of the story's setting and come together at the end to summarize the filmmaker's themes.
Field has decided to stage some of his scenes with the surreal artificiality we often find in David Mamet's work. That's what we get when an anti-Greek chorus of suburban moms chatter at the film's beginning and when Brad and Larry interact with their touch-football buddies. Perhaps the point is the affluent falseness of the world these characters inhabit. The acting between the lovers is more naturalistic and more affecting. We never quite warm to Brad, nor are we supposed to, but Winslet's Sarah plucks at our heart. Yes, she needs to grow up some more. But Winslet makes us see the tragic ways in which Sarah's fallen into a trap she can't easily get out of. She's in a loveless marriage. But without professional prospects, she can't easily strike out on her own. (Along the way, she gives us a stirring reading of Madame Bovary, with whom she obviously identifies.) And so she does what women have so often been reduced to: she puts her hopes in a man little more worthy than the one she has now. In the end, though, Sarah has genuine goodness in her, and that proves a powerful saving grace.
I might gripe that the plot resolves itself with more hope than its developments quite earn. But the whole of the picture is a significant achievement, as literary in its sensibility as Field's earlier In the Bedroom. I can imagine award nominations for Haley, who is very fine here. And Winslet is a marvel, as winning in this very different role as she was in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Award nominations for her are a foregone conclusion.