November 02, 2008

Little Children

Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson as upscale suburbanites who initiate an affair with each other after meeting at a local park where they take their children to play. As the audience, we become complicit in their bad behavior, and we perhaps feel guiltier for them than they do for themselves, at first. Wilson's character is struggling to pass the Bar exam while his condescending wife (Jennifer Connelly) serves as the sole provider. She's also happy to take the Favorite Parent Award from her two-year-old son, and you can see the feeling of betrayal in Wilson's face when she comes home from work and their son runs to her as though his father never even existed (let alone spent the entire day amusing him). Winslet's character feels equally alienated from her family life. Her husband lures himself into a kinky internet world behind her back, but the distance between them is anything but concealed. 

In the midst of the suburban turmoil of deep sighs and passive aggressive statements made under the breath is the story of Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), a recently released sex offender who becomes the town's scapegoat. Unlike Winslet and Wilson's characters, Ronnie's sins are plastered all over the paper and embedded into the psyches of everyone in the community. He is the one who makes their immorality seem less problematic, less underhanded or seething with guilt. Another neighbor, played by Noah Emmerich, makes it his campaign to torment Ronnie, whose sympathy wavers from scene to scene. He's clearly not making it in the social scene (as evidenced by a blind date that takes a horrendous turn by his own doing), and yet by the end of it the movie is asking once again for us to pity him, when he's mutilated himself. 

Winslet and Wilson are both terrific actors. They make the drabness of suburbia and their characters a little less bland. However, the redemption story at the end is too calculated. We're expecting some kind of life-altering crisis and what we get instead is the "what the hell are we doing" moment from Wilson and Winslet. (In the sense that the ending works against our expectations, the movie succeeds.) The main characters return to their boring, sedated existences with their repellent spouses. Emmerich's character tries to save Haley's, after spending the entire movie vilifying him. On one level, the movie shows us the reality of having to settle for the less appealing life because it may be the right thing to do. Perhaps the movie doesn't have the strength of its convictions, or maybe possibly it's the characters who don't. They want their little fling, and they're not wanting to put an expiration date on it. They simply know that it could be terminated at any time, and they'll deal with the repercussions when the time comes.

Based on the book by Tom Perotta. Directed by Todd Field. ½