Little Children

I didn't much care for Little Children during its first half hour. A tale of bored suburbanites in Massachusetts, I detected something portentously American Beauty-like in its opening minutes – and I hated American Beauty. The initial meeting between unhappy stay-at-home spouses Sarah and Brad (Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson) is contrived. The gossipy housewives in the playground where Sarah takes her daughter are too cartoonish, especially bitchy "queen bee" Mary Ann (Mary B. McCann). And the burgeoning romance between Sarah and Brad seems too obviously doomed from the getgo.

But when Jackie Earle Haley shows up as a recently-paroled pedophile, suddenly the film gets interesting. Not because Haley's character is sympathetic – these days, it seems you can't make an indie drama without putting a sympathetic child molester in it (see L.I.E., Happiness, The Woodsman) – but because he's so damn interesting to watch. A former teen actor known in the 1970s for the Bad News Bears series, Haley hadn't performed for 13 years when he got this part. He embodies his role to such a degree that you might wonder if director Todd Field found the actor while surfing through a "Megan's Law" site. And even though Haley's scenes play second fiddle to the main drama – the extramarital adventures of Winslet and Wilson – it both wakes up the story (based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, who cowrote the script with Field) and grounds it in reality.

The title of the film gives away its theme, for "little children" doesn't refer to the characters' own offspring, or of those supposedly endangered by the return of the pedophile to the community, but to the characters themselves, weak adults who use their past failures as excuses for not growing up and getting their lives together. They practically want to become the old schoolyard stereotypes: the bully, the jock, the cheerleader, the loner. It is, after all, easier than dealing with the endless complications that come with actual maturity.

While the story sets us up for all manner of potential American Beauty-esque tragedy at the climax, the film almost magically brings it all together for a conclusion that, though maybe a little rushed, is graceful and heartfelt, where I expected violent and grim. In its own way, it grows up.

There are still plenty of glitches in Little Children: Patrick Wilson is a bland, dime-a-dozen hunk who makes only obvious acting choices; a couple of attempts at visual humor make an awkward fit with the rest of the film; an intrusive third-person voiceover narration (by Will Lyman, who doesn't appear in the picture), intended perhaps as a Brechtian distancing device, comes across as pretentious and unnecessary. I wish I could have seen a cut of the film without it.

Kate Winslet is truly great in her role. I'm not usually a fan of her work – I find her acting a bit mannered – but here I think she truly gets what the film is about, and dives into her role as an obsessed lost soul who first pretends she's an adult, then pretends she's an adolescent, and fails at both. She and Jackie Earle Haley are the best reasons to see Little Children, a flawed but interesting movie that does not disappoint.