As the title would suggest, the world of “Little Children” is populated by the immature, but not all of them are age-appropriate. In the suburban neighborhood where the film takes place, adults and children alike deal with playground politics, bullies, and puppy love. The difference is, with the adults, grave consequences abound.
Directed by Todd Field, whose previous efforts include “In the Bedroom”, the film deals with Sarah Pierce, played by Kate Winslet, who, at the “dares” from the other playground moms, meets and forms a friendship with the “Prom King”, an attractive father they have not had the confidence to talk to yet. Meanwhile, the King, played by Patrick Wilson, has joined up with a nightly football league, and the whole neighborhood is dealing with the arrival of a “bully” in the form of a convicted sex offender.
These immature dealings dominate the first half of the film, and for that time, the film works as a satire. With interesting literary narration, the script plays up the inherent silliness in the actions of the adults. They are constantly forced into awkward confrontations and deal with them in juvenile ways, all the while ignoring the more significant issues at play. In the second half, however, everything changes.
Sarah and the King start an affair that they both aim to commit to long-term, and the King’s wife, played by Jennifer Connelly, responds accordingly. The pedophile begins receiving threats from a member of the football team, while the true “bully” is revealed. In the end, all of the decisions and plans and desires come to a head that leave some characters on the verge of death, and some with a chance at redemption.
The turn in the middle of the film is its biggest flaw. It plays out as if the writers had begun writing a comedy, arrived at the middle and realized the dramatic potential, and then continued from there. The dichotomy proves problematic when very serious events are presented with inappropriate levity or juxtaposition. Inversely, when some of the sillier actions of the adults are given a dramatic bent, it seems rather ridiculous and implausible.
The direction is thoughtful, with the finale photographed in a kind of beautiful darkness that it belongs in. The performances are all quite good, with especially strong turns from Kate Winslet, Jackie Earle Haley as the pedophile, and Noah Emmerich as his antagonist. Also, the underrated Patrick Wilson gives another great performance with just the innocence and naiveté that the film needs.
In the end, however, it comes down to the subject matter. Yes, the suburban lives of ordinary Americans can be poignant and moving, but the conflicted nature of the story always keeps the viewer at a distance, never letting us get close enough to really identify with any of them. What results is a sort of snow globe effect. “Little Children” looks pretty and moves appropriately, but never lets us get in the midst and feel the chill.