In the opening moments of Little Children, director Todd Field’s unsettling portrait of marriage and parenthood, an evening train whistles its approach and antique clocks ticktock throughout an otherwise silent house. It’s a subtle but unmistakable omen that disaster is stalking the film’s oblivious, self-destructive characters. There’s unfulfilled young mom Sarah (Kate Winslet), a tomboyish intellectual with a porn-addicted husband; shiftless young dad Brad (Patrick Wilson), who’s failed the bar exam twice and is happiest playing touch football; and convicted sexual offender Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), whose return home to live with his doting mom (Phyllis Somerville) sends shock waves through an unassuming community.
As a sketchy introvert with mommy issues, Ronnie has all the makings of a classic horror-film villain. His Nosferatu-like mug stares blankly from overzealous neighborhood-watch fliers, and when he finally appears at the town pool, terrified swimmers flee like in a scene from Jaws. Before long, the recurring whistle of that train is as evocative as the da-dum, da-dum of a certain great white.
But underneath, Field has crafted the blackest of comedies, suggesting that the biggest dangers lurking in suburbia aren’t sexual predators but boredom and temptation. Tom Perrotta, who (with Field) adapted the screenplay from his 2004 book, is clearly intrigued by arrested development; his novel Election was the source of Alexander Payne’s 1999 satire about a sophomoric high school teacher. In both, the ”little children” are the adults. Sarah shrieks like a teenager when Brad scores a touchdown, and as they’re adulterously canoodling on the field afterward, Brad giddily declares, ”I want to stay right here. Forever.”
While Sarah’s and Brad’s marriages are falling apart and their adolescent fling risks exposure, the only relationship depicted with any tenderness is that of Ronnie and his mother. Somerville’s strength and sweetness are so enchanting that you see her son through her eyes, making Ronnie’s initially promising blind date with a medicated sad sack all the more crushing when his illicit urges emerge.
Eventually, the ticking time bomb explodes, yet Field’s masterful concoction of irony and suspense keeps the audience guessing. It’s a superlative effort, confirming the maturity and daring he exhibited in his 2001 Oscar-nominated debut, In the Bedroom. Yet the movie received a puzzlingly minuscule theatrical release, and the DVD lacks a single extra — not even the tantalizing trailer (see it at littlechildrenmovie.com). No matter. Little Children‘s characters might be a train wreck, but their melancholic demise is one of 2006’s great cinematic tales. A