Brad (Patrick Wilson) is a house husband, sweetly raising his adorable little son and pretending to study for the bar exam while his wife (Jennifer Connelly) makes documentary films to pay their mortgage. Sarah (Kate Winslet) is overeducated for this neighborhood and restless in other ways as well. Her husband is way too devoted to Internet porn, and she finds her daughter can be a pesky nuisance.
Given that setup, you imagine--quite correctly--that good old-fashioned suburban adultery is the long-fused time bomb waiting to explode in Little Children. But before you give your been-there-done-that shrug, and well before Brad and Sarah get it on, director and co-writer Todd Field establishes some very nontraditional premises, both stylistic and emotional, that give his film--based on a novel by Tom Perrotta, who collaborated on the screenplay--a creepy, hypnotic edge.
For one thing, it features a voice-over narration, rare in films of this kind, especially since its tone is often boldly ironic. Yes, it distances us a little from the inevitable banalities of the action. But it also somehow encourages a kind of sardonic sympathy for the film's rather grimly fated players. For another, a sex criminal--a child molester (Jackie Earle Haley), newly released from jail--has moved in with his mother nearby, in a sort of living, breathing nightmare on Elm Street. Is he still a threat? An ex-cop (Noah Emmerich) has no doubt on that point and is devoting his many idle days to harassing him. Fair warning: don't succumb too quickly to sympathy or antipathy for any of the characters. They are each a trickier part of this movie's complex scheme than they at first seem.
The little children of the title are by no means toddlers. They are the adults who are supposed to be nurturing the children but are lost in their own less-than-mature dreams of entitlement. All these prosperous people--save the criminal, of course--have bought into the middle-class American dream. Some wish vaguely to be "creative"; others think their birthright includes perfect romantic fulfillment. It may be that the film's greatest scene is a book group, in which the good ladies are studying Madame Bovary and trying to keep their distance from that doomed dreamer while Sarah tries to make them see what they might have in common with her. It's a wonderfully poignant, subtly funny passage in a movie that is rich in them.
Little Children does not have quite the bleak discipline of Field's more keenly judged In the Bedroom. Yet it is a more ambitious film and a considerable achievement, particularly in the ways it permits authentic savagery to break through the leafy languidness of suburban life, powerfully reinforcing the notion that no matter how comfortable people believe they are, violence--sometimes open, sometimes present as a restless quirk of the mind--is never more than a heartbeat away.