Based on a novel by Tom Perrotta, Todd Field's Little Children seems to come from the perspective of someone who has an opinion about suburban life without having logged much time there. Much like its hero, a bright stay-at-home mother played by Kate Winslet, the film views this squeaky-clean landscape as a hornet's nest of judgmental backbiting and dirty little secrets, a suffocating place for people of real passion and substance. Yet the film mostly gets away with its reductive point of view, thanks to an ideal push-and-pull of sensibilities: Perrotta's witty observational touches, evident in great novels like The Wishbones and Election, helps leaven Field's direction, which has all the assurance and gravity of his debut feature In The Bedroom. Together, they're able to sell a scenario that would seem fraudulent in lesser hands.
Though she goes through the motions as dutiful mother, wife, and neighbor, Winslet opens the film as a wilting hothouse flower, forced into a domestic life that stifles her adventurous, intellectual spirit. An outcast among a cadre of gossipy soccer moms, Winslet gives them something to talk about when she meets Patrick Wilson, a hunky father stuck in an emasculating marriage with a working professional (Jennifer Connelly) who harangues him for failing the bar. Winslet and Wilson's blossoming affair takes place against a backdrop of fear and suspicion, as registered sex offender Jackie Earle Haley takes up residence with his protective mother. The conservative, family-friendly community embarks on a harassment campaign to drive Haley out of the neighborhood, but the threat persists.
These two story threads co-exist peacefully for a while, but waiting for their inevitable coupling proves to be a stomach-churning experience, a sword of Damocles hanging over the whole movie. Though Perrotta and Field condemn Haley's treatment, they also make clear that he's genuinely monstrous, an unrepentant pedophile who has no control over his sick impulses. Decades removed from his dreamy Kelly in the Bad News Bears movies, Haley pulls off the remarkable feat of bringing childlike vulnerability to his character while still suggesting ungodly menace. He plays a bracingly evil man that somehow has more dimension than anyone else in Little Children, which is either a credit to Haley's performance, or evidence of the cardboard universe Perrotta and Field have so meticulously constructed. Whatever the case, the end result is genuinely unsettling.