In the playroom

‘Children’ scrutinizes the lives of consenting adults

The title isn’t exactly misleading. The characters central to Todd Field’s tense new drama, “Little Children,” are fully developed in age and appearance, but at heart, they are less than adults.

Sarah (Kate Winslet) is a suburban mom who sees herself as an outsider, there to view ironically the behavior of other suburban moms. Restless and distracted, she is oddly estranged from the 3-year-old daughter she finds “impossible to know.” Meanwhile, suburban dad Brad (Patrick Wilson) remains mired in adolescent fantasies, unable to embrace his roles as father and husband.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that they end up in each other’s arms. Sarah is understandably disgusted by her husband, Richard (Gregg Edelman), who splits his time between his marketing interests and a fixation on Internet porn. She passes her time with minor distractions — evening walks through the neighborhood, a book club — but nothing satisfies. She longs for passion, romance and an escape from the domestic doldrums.

Brad is a different story, daydreaming through life in search of lost youth. Instead of studying for his bar exam, he wanders to a local park and stares, transfixed, at a crew of young skaters, wondering if he could have been one of them. By day, he’s a stay-at-home dad who enjoys trips to the playground with his young son, but his discomfort with the Mr. Mom role is evident to everyone but his wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly). He joins a touch-football league to stake a sort of claim on his manhood, but yearns for riskier adventures to make him feel truly alive.

Sarah proves to be the ultimate adventure. They meet, share an awkward kiss and soon become friends, with an almost palpable tension lingering between them. When that friendship isn’t enough, they fall into a desperate affair, mostly to relieve their unhappiness with who they have become.

Based on Tom Perrotta’s 2004 bestseller, “Little Children” is a wrenching tale of characters sinking beneath the weight of their inadequacies and discontent, with sporadic moments of comic relief courtesy of a wry, off-screen narrator. It is also rife with incendiary subplots: Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley, from “Breaking Away”) is a convicted sex offender, released by the prison system into a small Massachusetts town filled with hysterically frightened parents and an ex-cop (Noah Emmerich) on a manic crusade to “save the children.”

Like most of the characters, Ronnie is essentially a troubled child himself, living behind the wall of protection afforded him by his lone defender, his mother (Phyllis Somerville). And, thanks to Haley’s tortured performance, he is depicted in a somewhat sympathetic light as a sick man who can’t break the cycle of his failures. In the end, he, like Sarah and Brad, achieves some measure of redemption, though long-term happiness seems out of the question.

Field, who also directed 2001’s powerful “In the Bedroom,” is clearly attracted to the darker side of small-town living, the stresses that drive ordinary people to the breaking point. Here, his story is elegantly constructed, but grounded in an authenticity that makes every blow leave a deep and lasting bruise. There are occasional lulls that call for less indulgent editing, yes, but rarely do they compromise the film’s raw emotional impact.

Movie review

Little Children ???

Starring Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Noah Emmerich and Jackie Earle Haley

Written by Todd Field and Tom Perrotta, based on Pertotta’s novel

Directed by Todd Field

Rated R

Running time 130 minutes

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