Ronald McGorvey, a convicted pedophile played wonderfully by former child star Jackie Earle Haley, decides to go for a swim in the community pool of his Massachusetts town. Not just a refreshing dip, mind you, but he brings scuba gear for underwater exploration.
He's a freakish-looking man -- balding, unsettling eyes -- and when word gets out of his presence, there is panic at the pool. The moms (and a dad or two) rush to get their kids out of the water and to safety, holding them as if the apocalypse were at hand.
Field and his cinematographer, Antonio Calvache, view the uproar from all angles, even underwater as Ronald is swimming, and it's amazingly reminiscent of 1950s-era monster movies or even Jaws.
That parallel is intended, no doubt, and there's a bitter reality in the satire. Our supposedly enlightened society is as scared of someone like Ronald as if he were a monster.
Yet the scene isn't meant as an easy chide. There is genuine tension when Ronald goes underwater that he's trying to spy on the kids -- or worse. (When police arrive to toss him out, he protests he just wanted to cool off.) Overall this mixes humor, suspense, sadness and a savvy awareness of movies past better than anything I've seen this year. And it really says something unsettling about American life circa 2006/2007.
And yet that's just a small part of what Little Children is about. An astute look at suburban American life, at its deepest it questions whether children are the ticket to an adult's fulfillment of the American dream or a hindrance to personal growth. Or both.
Very much an actor's film, Little Children belongs to Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson -- and Haley, of course, who is fearless in not going for easy sympathy. Winslet plays with a faultless dialect young mother Sarah Pierce whose literary interests and educational background make her a poor fit with the more conformist moms at the local playground. When she discovers her husband (Gregg Edelman) is addicted to Internet porn, she feels liberated to seek an affair with an alluring neighbor, stay-at-home dad Brad Adamson (Wilson).
Winslet, it almost goes without saying given the consistency of her film work, is tremendous as Sarah -- angry, doubtful, sexy, passionate, nervous, contemptuous, mischievous and simultaneously bedraggled and beauteous.
But the little-known Wilson (Phantom of the Opera and Angels in America) is a revelation in a difficult role. Brad is both a thick-skulled dunderhead -- an aging jock who daydreams about skateboarding with neighborhood kids -- and a genuinely nice, tender dad whose appeal to Sarah is evident. He's deeply conflicted about his infidelity as his wife (Jennifer Connelly) is bossy but also supportive.
The fine acting helps Little Children overcome a few plot weaknesses and its broader subplots, such as a police-force football team that Brad gets involved with. Adapted by Field and Tom Perrotta from the latter's novel (Perrotta also wrote Election), the film most immediately recalls American Beauty and About Schmidt in subject matter.
Yet as a stylist, Field doesn't favor either the ironic distancing of the former or the deadpan minimalism of the latter. (He doesn't reach Beauty's transcendent highs, either.) He seeks an empathetic understanding of all his characters. This brings out the best in his actors, even those with veritable cameos like Jane Adams as a troubled young woman who goes out on an arranged date with Ronald. It's the kind of movie where everyone makes a lasting impression. Grade: A-