There’s the prom king, the bully, the dweeb, the bookish one and the popular blonde who controls a clique of like-minded minions.
And while they’re adults living comfortable lives, they’re clearly the “Little Children” of the title.
This second feature from “In the Bedroom” director Todd Field, based on the acclaimed novel by Tom Perrotta, actually feels more like an extension of high school — like a follow-up on the types from “The Breakfast Club,” still judging and tormenting each other 20 years later.
After movies like “Election” (for which Perrotta also provided the source material), “The Ice Storm” and “American Beauty,” “Little Children” doesn’t exactly break any new ground. Suburbia isn’t as safe and genteel as its quiet, leafy exterior would suggest. We understand that by now.
But it is a shrewd, darkly humorous look at supposed civility, at the ways in which we allow ourselves to settle, and a rare depiction of motherhood as a less-than-awesome experience.
Kate Winslet can be both subtle and vibrant, as always, as Sarah, the unhappily married mother of a young girl who bucks the playground rules the other mommies follow. Patrick Wilson, meanwhile, is blandly likable as Brad, the stay-at-home father and husband with whom she has an affair. (And that’s not a slam on him — that’s appropriate. His chiseled good looks earn him the nickname “The Prom King” from the giggly mothers who ogle him from the shared safety of the park bench but don’t dare speak to him.)
Their leader, with her rigid schedule that makes time for snacks in the morning and sex in the evening, is Mary Ann (the fantastically condescending Mary B. McCann). And Sarah is only too happy to shock them all by not only approaching Brad, but also sharing a dramatic kiss with him that’s intended solely to get their attention. (Field, the actor-turned-director, proves he still knows how to create a mood, the creaking of the swings setting a tense rhythm as Sarah and Brad stand side by side, pushing their kids and politely chatting.)
But the kiss stirs something unexpected in both of them. Brad is tired of feeling emasculated by his beautiful, successful wife (Jennifer Connolly), a documentary filmmaker who won’t let him have a cell phone. Sarah, who wears overalls and no makeup and treasures her books, isn’t even his type as we learn from the narrator, his voice washing over the film in smooth and slightly mocking tones. (“Brad showered quickly, sensing a rare opportunity to have sex with his wife.”)
Meanwhile, Sarah’s nebbishy husband (Gregg Edelman) is too busy with his Internet porn obsession to pay attention to her. (The script, which Field and Perrotta co-wrote, introduces him and then quickly forgets about him; he wasn’t all that interesting anyway.)
Sarah finds reasons to see Brad at the playground, at the pool, and after a series of chaste summer afternoons together with their kids, one day they finally give in. He gets to relive his high-school football glory days; she gets to date the cutest boy in class. And “Madame Bovary,” which Sarah read as an English-lit grad student and revisits with her book club, makes much more sense all of a sudden.
“Little Children” is meaty and juicy enough without its child-predator subplot, even though it’s in the book, but Jackie Earle Haley is palpably creepy in the role. (It might have been even more interesting, though, to have chosen an actor who wasn’t so obviously unnerving, like the unexpected casting of Kevin Bacon in “The Woodsman.”)
Everyone in this quiet Massachusetts hamlet is on edge when scrawny, pasty Ronnie McGorvey returns after his prison sentence, especially overzealous former cop Larry (Noah Emmerich), who’s papered the town with flyers of Ronnie’s mug. Their increasingly violent confrontations feel as if they belong in a different movie; the frantic reaction Ronnie gets when he takes a dip in the crowded community pool is like something out of “Jaws.”
But “Little Children” is even more reminiscent of the work of Douglas Sirk — all dreamy, creamy idyll with the throbbing of unfulfilled longing underneath. The hens just wear khakis and button-downs instead of heels and pearls as they cluck at each other.