Review: Little Children

When "American Beauty" was released to massive acclaim and numerous Oscars, it solidified itself as the definitive take on snarky suburban irony. Now, after countless dreary imitators comes "Little Children" (IMDb listing), a wonderfully impulsive, engrossing journey of lustful temptation and an engaging snapshot of fixation.

Lost in a loveless marriage, Sarah (Kate Winslet) finds attraction to Brad (Patrick Wilson, "Phantom of the Opera"), a stay-at-home father (Jennifer Connelly plays his wife) who hungers for individuality. Both are feeling the burn of suburban atrophy and embark on an affair that rejuvenates their lives, pushing Sarah to explore her dormant intelligence and sexual allure, and allowing Brad to reclaim his youthful significance. Also in the neighborhood is Ronald (Jackie Earle Haley), a recently imprisoned pedophile who has moved back in with his mother. Faced with angry and violent locals who want him gone, Ronald strains to find his place in the world again, unsure if he can suppress his depraved urges.

"Children" exists in a bubble where blunt-end satire and heartbreaking drama can co-exist peacefully. Director Todd Field's last production, "In the Bedroom," explored rampaging grief and bitterness behind the docile suburban facade. "Children" takes matters a step further, heightening the artifice to erect a world of suffocation, suspicion, and just plain old fashioned bad ideas.

To best sell the microscopic tone of the film, Field has hired Will Lyman, the pipes behind "Frontline," to provide the inner voice of honesty the characters often refuse to acknowledge. Employing his wintry, professorial voice, Lyman helps to steer the film through dramatically stormy weather, overcoming the traditional band-aid nature of narration to become a character of the film, and a constant the audience can rely upon.

Field gives his actors plenty of space to work, and born from that faith are majestic turns from Winslet and Wilson, and unexpected ones from Haley and Connelly. Winslet's Sarah is the heart of the story; the character that is most aware of the consequences of her actions, but pulled helplessly toward Brad and the idea of salvation and worship. Wilson is terrific as the dim-witted jock finding purpose and attraction again, but it's Winslet that the film always returns to for self-centered lucidity. Field captures the twinges of doubt and glee on her face, and her desperate grab at an empty feeling of happiness is the most critical character arc in the film. She's dynamite in every move she makes.

"Children" is a torrent of emotions, but Field keeps the film mercurial and observational in tone. It's a highly uncomfortable portrait of sexuality, exploring the isolation of adultery and the endless hallway of perversion. It's also satiric in its communication of soccer mom superiority, revealing these women as cartoonish icons of gossip, lording over the neighborhood as though it was their kingdom to rule. The film is aching in its depiction of desire, and how the longing of our hearts doesn't always translate into the best judgment.

There are so many fragments of human minutiae parading around here, and that's what makes "Children" an unbelievably good, transporting film. Field doesn't spare a frame when it comes to contributing to the kaleidoscope of mouth-agape tension. The director respects the observations of Tom Perotta's book (the two co-wrote the screenplay), the frustration of urges that won't silence, and the selfish pursuit of marital sovereignty. The film just gets better and better as the quicksand thickens for Sarah, Brad, and Ronald; their yearning and gullibility making for unbearably powerful drama and sickening moments of shock. It's something of a miracle Field can make all these tonal changes and bruisingly real sexual situations come together in a cohesive film. But this is better than cohesion; it's one of the best pictures of 2006.

Filmfodder Grade: A