Little Children, based on Tom Perrotta's excellent 2004 novel, is one of those rare movies that probably won't piss off fans of the book: It's well cast and largely faithful to the novel's narrative, and Todd Field's (In the Bedroom) direction captures the suburban landscape with as much perceptiveness and irony as Perrotta's prose.
The opening narration in Little Children is taken directly from the novel: As Kate Winslet sits on a park bench, watching her daughter play, the narrator intones, "Sarah reminded herself to think like an anthropologist," to remember that she is a researcher studying the behavior of boring suburban women and not a boring suburban woman herself. This attitude sums up the film, which is largely about adults trying to pretend their lives are something other than what they are.
Sarah is a young mother living the suburban dream, complete with a successful businessman/ husband, a gorgeous house, and an adorable daughter. It's not, however, the life she wants: She clings to the idea that she is made for something grander than a suburban existence that she can't see as anything but trivial. When she meets the equally unhappy Brad (the blandly handsome Patrick Wilson), a stay-at-home dad who is lackadaisically studying for his third attempt at the bar exam, the two begin an affair based as much on mutual desperation as on desire.
Winslet gives the latest in a series of great performances as the frazzled Sarah, a character who is bright, unfulfilled, and fiercely selfish. A longing for high school permeates the film: Sarah talks like the smart girl in English class, while Brad ignores his wife and son to play touch football with the guys at night. Meanwhile, a child molester haunts the neighborhood (played with creepy aplomb by Jackie Earle Haley), introducing an element of danger to the seemingly idyllic setting. All these plotlines converge in the film's gory, sensationalist climax—in which both Brad and Sarah must decide what it is they really want. And while this ending might put off some viewers, Little Children is ultimately an astute, well-made exploration of suburban dreams and delusions.