Within weeks of his release, convicted sex offender Ronald James McGorvey is paddling about a public swimming pool, in close proximity to little children. He spent two years in prison for molesting minors, and, when parents realize that a monster lurks in their midst, they organize a rapid evacuation. Adults and children all arrange themselves around the rim of the pool, staring in contempt at its lone remaining occupant. “I was only trying to cool off,” pleads Ronald, as the police escort him back to his aging mother’s house.
Despite a memorably chilling performance by San Antonio resident Jackie Earle Haley as Ronald, the swimming-pool scene is not essential to the main plot of Little Children. But it does evoke the blend of vulnerability, desperation, and sanctimony that pervade the story. Set one summer in a prim and numb Northeastern suburb, Little Children is an excruciating story of infidelity within the commuting middle class. To underline its hoary literary legacy (and indemnify itself against the charge of cliché), the film includes a meeting of a women’s book club, in which the current subject is Madame Bovary.
Though one priggish participant condemns the book as depressing and its protagonist as a slut, Sarah Pierce (Winslet) defends Flaubert’s novel about a self-destructive adulteress. The Emma Bovary of East Wyndham, Sarah, who stopped just short of a doctorate in English, hungers for an alternative to her own claustral existence as wife and mother. She feels out of place among the other neighborhood women and out of touch with a nerdy husband who makes a comfortable living through “branding” and pleasures himself with voluptuous internet images.
At the local playground where she takes her daughter Lucy, Sarah runs into a househusband, who’s accompanying his son, Aaron. Secretly nicknamed “Prom King” by the other mothers, who gawk at the hunk but dare not speak to him, Brad Adamson (Wilson) shocks Sarah with his utter lack of ambition. Content to let his beautiful wife Kathy (Connelly) support the family through her job as a documentary filmmaker, he has done nothing with the law degree he received two years ago. Though he keeps failing the bar exam, he prefers football with his buddies and skateboarding with young strangers to preparing for a profession.
The clandestine affair that Sarah pursues with this handsome flake seems so conventional an escape from convention, it is a wonder that only the viewer suspects it at first. And, as with American Beauty and The Ice Storm, expect to find suburbia maligned as a metaphor for torpor; an unhappy daze is here again. However, Todd Field, who directed In the Bedroom, has returned for another bedroom drama that is uncommonly adept at exploring private hunger and public shame. The acting and editing in Field’s adaptation of a novel by Tom Perrotta are economical and devastating. It is impossible not to pity the film’s little children, ignored by the self-absorbed grownups who are supposed to protect them. And it is impossible not to conclude, in anguish, that the title “Little Children” applies as well to the film’s pitiful adults.