MOVIE REVIEW- Oh, grow up: Raves for 'Little Children'

"From the director of In the Bedroom‚" is enough to raise expectations unrealistically high for Little Children. Well, damned if Todd Field's second feature isn't even better than his first.

Field moves into American Beauty territory, both in tone and quality, with this darkly comic drama about goings-on in East Wyndam, Massachusetts. This movie about the things that make men feel alive makes a critic feel alive.

Mournful sounds establish a mood before the opening shot of a house full of chiming clocks and Hummel figurines. We'll find out later who lives there, but first a newscast informs us of the release of a "convicted sex offender" who had been jailed for exposing himself to a minor. A "Committee of Concerned Citizens" has protested the presence of Ronald James McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley in an Oscar-bait performance), a "dangerous predator in our midst."

He's not allowed near a playground, but we are. There we see four women minding their children. Three are gossiping. The fourth, Sarah (Kate Winslet), considers herself "a researcher observing the behavior of typical suburban women. She was not a typical suburban woman," according to a deep-voiced narrator who might be annoying if he didn't sound like he was reading to us from a really good book.

The conversation changes with the arrival of the man they call "The Prom King." He brought his son to the playground for some time, setting the women's hearts aflutter, then disappeared for months.

Since Sarah's the only one who's indifferent toward Brad (Patrick Wilson), she winds up talking to him, then going so far beyond talking that the other women make her an outcast. Sarah and Brad become obsessed with each other. Their obsession leads to flirtation, then friendship, and finally a full-blown affair.

The point of Little Children is that everyone has their obsessions and perversions. Some are harmless, some harmful to the individual, and some considered harmful to society. Sarah's husband, Richard (Gregg Edelman), is encouraged by learning his next-door neighbor is a transvestite, and Ted (Joe Guest) from work has anonymous sex at highway rest stops.

When Sarah discovers Richard's addiction to the "Slutty Kay" website, it frees her to pursue her outside interests. This in turn gives the former lit major a new understanding of and appreciation for Madame Bovary.

Brad's wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), a documentary filmmaker, has supported him through law school and two attempts to pass the bar, but she keeps him on a short financial leash. As his third bar exam nears, he's supposed to be studying at the library every night, but instead indulges his own obsession: watching teenage skateboarders– not out of sexual interest, as you may first suspect, but a desire to recapture his own youth.

One night Brad runs into an old, not particularly dear friend, Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich), an ex-cop who's obsessed with protecting the neighborhood from Ronnie the perv.  Asked if he's a member of the committee, he replies, "I am the committee." He recruits Brad for a touch football team made up of his police buddies and drags him along when he goes to harass Ronnie.

Ronnie lives with his old mother, May (Phyllis Somerville), who worries what will happen to him when she's gone. She encourages him to date, leading to a surprise-filled evening with Sheila (Jane Adams). Otherwise he keeps to himself, except for a disastrous attempt to use the public pool.

In one awkward bit of narration Brad mentally compares Sarah to Kathy, including his wife's "perfect breasts" vs. Sarah's "boyish" appearance. Winslet may be somewhat deglammed here, but if you've seen any of her other movies, that "boyish" line wouldn't fool you on radio.

That may be the only flaw in the screenplay by director Field and Tom Perrotta, whose novel Little Children was based on. It's a hilarious, heartbreaking look at the state of morality in America today.

It's a little bit too long, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anything that's not too good to cut– unless you're a moralist, in which case you know exactly what should be cut from a "pervert."