Credit: Little Children: Robert Zuckerman

When did words like adult, child, suburban, and playground lose their neutrality — their innocence? When did the Pedophile Menace Alert get raised to red in this country so proud of its hazard-free swing sets and juice boxes? Little Children, a jolting, artfully made drama set in and around a suburban playground somewhere between American Beauty and In the Bedroom on America’s psychic highway, is populated by parents who are surprised by adulthood and children who are treated like projects built by competitive students of What to Expect… books.

The trouble — satiric and dead-serious in turn — begins when two of those adults are shaken out of their own childlike stupors one day by dangerous grown-up desire: Sarah (Kate Winslet), the restless mother of a little girl and wife of a man (Gregg Edelman) lost in work and Internet porn (the latter’s a misplaced satiric touch), meets Brad (Patrick Wilson), the passive, handsome father of a little boy and stay-at-home husband of an alpha-female documentary filmmaker (Jennifer Connelly).

What begins as an idle hug — a playground dare, really, to shock some gossipy mothers — becomes something first emotionally important, and then sexually urgent, even torrid. The coupling on screen is hungry and exposed, something with which only an actress as honest and confident as Winslet can be entrusted, and to which Wilson responds with vigor. The two make a riveting, attractive couple of unhappy lovers who, unlike the cartoon cavorters in Desperate Housewives, have no intention of messing up their nests, and then do so; it is no accident that Sarah joins a book-group discussion of Madame Bovary, or that Todd Field directs with the same sensitivity to male and female failings he brought to In the Bedroom.

Almost all the parents, meanwhile, remain pathetically immature in their lack of psychological self-awareness, a condition Field alludes to with just the faintest raising of an eyebrow and some judiciously applied third-person narration. (Will Lyman, the stentorian voice of so many Frontline documentaries, provides a cool tone of sociological detachment.) And that middle-class naïveté is brought into even sharper focus by the introduction of Ronnie (All the King’s Men‘s Jackie Earle Haley, whose very skull conveys depravity), a pedophile who did time for indecent exposure and now lives nearby with his own aging mommy (Phyllis Somerville).

As Tom Perrotta makes clear in the 2004 novel on which he and Field based their fine screenplay, the parents in Little Children can’t recognize need in themselves or their kids. But they think they’re experts when it comes to Ronnie, urging constant monitoring and even further punishment at the slightest opportunity — a calling to which one overwound ex-cop (Noah Emmerich) responds with zeal. Who are the little children in this dark tragicomedy? It depends on how broadly you define the neutral word playground.

Little Children
  • Movie
  • 130 minutes