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Darkness on the edge of town
Little Children peeks behind the facade of normalcy
on
Winslet goes quietly crazy tending to her daughter's needs.
Winslet goes quietly crazy tending to her daughter's needs.

What Peyton Place did for small towns and American Beauty did for suburbs Little Children does for Northeastern-corridor commuter stops - i.e., expose the rot that lies under those emerald-green lawns. East Wyndam, Mass., is one of those places where everybody's so nice and friendly you want to scream. Then, when you get to know them better, they turn out to be so mean and so screwed up that you want to scream all over again. David Lynch explored this territory in Blue Velvet, smearing the rot in our faces. Todd Field, who directed and co-wrote Little Children, doesn't exactly smear the rot in our faces. He just kind of leans over it, pointing. And you start to get the feeling that he didn't want to get his hands dirty.

Turning in her usual solid performance, Kate Winslet is Sarah, a woman who's going quietly crazy tending to the needs of her toddler daughter. Sarah is a thesis away from a Ph.D. in English literature, but now she resides in "Kidworld," where Flaubert has been replaced with Sippy Cups. And Sarah's husband, it turns out, has fallen head over heels for an Internet trash receptacle known as Slutty Kay. So no wonder Sarah's entertaining the idea of having an affair with Brad (Patrick Wilson), a stay-at-home dad so good-looking he's known as "the prom king" among the women who gather at the park each day to compare potty-training regimens. A jock who's never quite left high school, Brad can't understand why his wife (Jennifer Connelly) treats him like a child.

Adultery and Internet porn aren't exactly the cutting edge of rot, so Little Children throws in Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), a man who just got through serving two years in prison for indecent exposure. Ronnie's primary targets are, you guessed it, little children. And when he moves back in with his mother (Phyllis Somerville), a woman who seems determined to love him, no matter how many laws of nature he's broken, the town is thrown into a panic. Ronnie's a monster upon which they can project their own monstrous impulses. And Haley, with his piercing blue eyes and his pint-size body, comes up with such an endearingly creepy vibe that you want to both hug him and run away from him. He's like a cuter version of Nosferatu.

Adapted from Tom Perrotta's 1993 novel, Little Children preserves Perrotta's voice by employing third-person narration. This both adds a layer of irony and causes a Brechtian distancing effect; we remain outside the story, looking in. But the movie isn't as funny as the book, for whatever reason. And it feels a little undercooked in places, as if it hasn't quite completed the transition from page to screen. Field got a lot of attention for his first movie, In the Bedroom, where Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson played parents whose marriage fell apart after (or was it before?) the death of their son. I thought that movie was undercooked as well. As he did there, Field finishes with a bang, when the ailing community rejects the pathogens flowing through its bloodstream.

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