The title of "Little Children" is obviously ironic since the young adults who make up the film's main characters are clearly being characterized as such by novelist Tom Perrotta. The author's judgments are of such importance to the telling ot the tale that director Todd Field, who did the screenplay with Perrotta, uses a narrator (Will Lyman, narrator of numerous PBS "NOVA" and "Frontline") to both express the inner thoughts of silent characters and to pass additional judgments. I was not especially enamored of this approach, which substitutes telling for showing at several points, but the touches of sardonic wit eventually won me over. However, the same cannot be said for most of the characters, which is actually a key part of the story.
Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) takes her daughter to the local suburban playground each day, where she listens to the gossip of the other young mothers, who have two primary topics. The first is the stay-at-home dad, Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), who has recently returned after a mysterious absence to show up at the playground with his young son. They call him the "Prom King," and when one of them bets Sarah $5 that she cannot gets the guy's phone number, Sarah gets a lot more than that. The second omnipresent topic is the release from prison of a pedophile, Ronnie J. McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), who has moved into the neighborhood to live with his mother, May (Phyllis Somerville). Ronnie exposed himself to a young girl and ex-cop Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich) has taken it upon himself to do more than just put up posters all over town warning parents about the sexual predator living in the neighborhood.
It is the reaction of the neighbors to Ronnie that first clues us in that this slice of suburbia is just another Peyton Place and that these characters are all hypocrites, because the hysterical reaction strikes me as just such overkill. If this is what they do to somebody who exposes himself, then you have to wonder what they would consider appropriate for someone guilty of more wretched molestation. When Ronnie finally appears there is clearly evidence that he has not changed, just as everybody fears, but there is also a scene that I think makes it equally clear Ronnie wants to be seen and not to touch. This only serves to reinforce the idea that these other characters should not be throwing stones, let alone judging others, and that this collision of characters is not going to end well.
Brad is married to Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), who is preoccupied with her career as a documentary film making and blithely unaware of what she is doing to her husband by suggesting he does not really "need" his magazine subscriptions. Meanwhile, Sarah's husband, Richard (Gregg Edelman), has become smitten with an Internet sex site. With their spouses adding to the inevitability of their affair, Brad and Sarah attempt to fill up the voids in their lives, while their neighbors continue to pass judgment on each other. Mary Ann (Mary B. McCann) is clearly the most judgmental of the playground mothers, although her character is apparently not as prominent as she is in the novel. What is important is that the characters are so busy passing judgments on each other they remain oblivious to their own failings until they are forcibly confronted by them.
Winslet and Haley were Oscar nominated for their roles, but their fine performances do not stand out notably so in this ensemble piece, where I found Sommerville and Emmerich to be equally strong. In the wake of the success of "Pulp Fiction" there were a whole slew of movies that scrambled up their chronological narratives in imitations of Quentin Tarrantino's film. It seems that the Oscar winning film "Crash" is becoming a similar source of emulation with all of these films that offer a fateful collision of characters with their varying degrees of separation (Not that "Crash" was the first film to do this sort of thing but rather than it has become the cinematic reference point for that particular approach). I wondered how "Babel" would have done at the Academy Awards if it did not seem so "Crash"-like, and was surprised by the final reel to discover that "Little Children" was even more like Paul Haggis's film. You regard for this similarity might be a stronger indicator of your predisposition for or against this particular film.
However, I also found myself being remind of "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." I have always wondered why the super-intelligent Khan would start quoting Ahab from "Moby Dick," seemingly embracing the whole idea of self-destructive obsession. In "Little Children" Sarah sits in on a neighborhood book club that has read "Madame Bovary," and finds herself identifying with Emma's plight, even though the group has explicitly talked about the character's suicide. Maybe if she had finished her dissertation she would know better, but Sarah is obviously trying to ignore the obvious and painful parallels. I can understand wanting to be with Emma Bovary (e.g., Woody Allen's "The Kugelmass Episode"), or discovering that your situation is precariously similar (e.g., Kate Chopin's "The Awakening"), but actively embracing such a fate is quite disconcerting. That is probably why I found the resolution of this 2006 film to be somewhat refreshing in that it did not play out exactly as anticipated.