Actor-turned-director Todd Field, who scored a critical and (to a degree) commercial hit a few years back with the intense family drama In the Bedroom, makes a strong return with Little Children, a drama of infidelity and human weakness set in an upper-class Massachusetts suburb. Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson play unhappy stay-at-home parents resentfully married to more successful spouses. They meet in a neighborhood park they bring their small children to each day and strike up a friendship rooted in mutual need that soon evolves into more. In the meantime, a registered sex offender ('70s icon Jackie Earl Haley, building on a comeback that began with his brief but sharp turn -- also with Winslet -- in All the King's Men) has moved into the neighborhood, provoking fear from area parents.
Field sets up these parallel plot lines and pushes them toward what seems to be an awful collision, but, as in In the Bedroom, viewers shouldn't expect obvious narrative resolution. With Winslet's Sarah displaying a terrible thoughtlessness towards her daughter and Wilson's Brad misleading his wife about his attempts to pass the bar, much less his affair, Little Children understands its protagonists but doesn't endorse them, giving the film a fascinating tonal complexity. (Incidentally, Little Children also boasts perhaps the most purposeful sex scenes of the year -- realistic and erotic in content, witty in use.)
In a crucial decision, Field uses an authoritative but ironic third-person voiceover to narrate the film, which puts some distance between the viewer and the story, making Little Children play as a bit of an adult, suburban fairy tale. This gambit has a similar distancing effect as the stylization of David Cronenberg's A History of Violence.
Little Children opens Friday, January 5th, at the Ridgeway Four.