Although thought-provoking and full of outstanding performances, Little Children still can't escape a little of the same ambivalence that traps its suburban characters.
Based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, Little Children at first feels like a dark, satirical comedy about life in the suburbs. Sarah (Kate Winslet) doesn't fit in with the other moms who gather in the park each day, eagerly exchanging gossip and parenting tips. For one thing, Sarah's just not that into being a mother--she sees her preschool-aged daughter as an ''unknowable little person.'' But the larger problem is that bookish, intellectual Sarah feels stagnant and alone in the land of white picket fences. That changes when she meets Brad (Patrick Wilson), a reluctantly aspiring lawyer/stay-at-home dad. As the two forge a friendship rippling with sexual tension, Little Children loses its satirical edge in favor of emotional drama, shifting between Sarah and Brad's story and a subplot about a tormented sex offender. By the time everything comes together, all of them have changed irrevocably.
Winslet is already getting Oscar buzz for her performance, and for good reason. By turns petulant, satisfied, mischievous, selfish, and overjoyed, Sarah is a complex, very human character, and Winslet embodies her fully. She makes Sarah's conflicting feelings about her daughter, her marriage, and herself seem absolutely genuine; even when you want to shake Sarah, you still can't help rooting for her. Wilson does strong work as Brad, too--the look on his face as Brad withdraws into himself whenever his filmmaker wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), tightens the family purse strings conveys his emasculation without a word. Brad is driven by his desire to reclaim that lost sense of power, which he needs in order to really grow up. In the supporting cast, former child star Jackie Earle Haley is memorable as squirrelly Ron McGorvey, who's at once scary, sympathetic, and utterly lost in Sarah and Brad's world.
Considering that director Todd Field's last film was multiple Oscar nominee In the Bedroom, it's no wonder that expectations were high for Little Children. And overall it doesn't disappoint, providing meaty drama and excellent performances. But there's something slightly off about the film's tone, as if Field couldn't decide whether the movie was going to be a black comedy or a melodrama until it was too late to commit to either. At least part of that is due to the pitch of the voice-over, particularly in the opening scenes. The omniscient narrator has a voice that seems more suited to tongue-in-cheek witticisms than heartbreak. But perhaps the tonal ambivalence was Field's intent--after all, most of life is neither all comedy or all tragedy, but a muddled mix of both.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 stars.