American ugly 

A good story about bad neighbors

All is not well in suburbia.

To begin with, Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley, the once-upon-a-time hesher epicenter of the original The Bad News Bears), a just-paroled pedophile, has moved back into the house of his elderly mother while the neighborhood ex-cop with a flash-point temper and a guilty secret takes it upon himself to form a one-man neighborhood watch against the childlike Ronnie and succeeds only in making everyone anxious. Meanwhile, two married couples orbit one another like heartsick heavenly bodies pockmarked by years of steadily mounting disappointment and the slow, awful ticking-away of joy, passion and life itself.


At the heart of director Todd Field’s complexly interwoven film is one half of one of these couples, Sarah (Kate Winslet), a wonderful, woeful creature of sly intellect who realizes all too well that her marriage was one big mistake—and not just because her husband’s more interested in surfing Internet porn than making love with her. Sarah’s lot changes dramatically when she takes her precocious daughter to the park and meets handsome stay-at-home dad Brad (Patrick Wilson) while “knockout” mom (Jennifer Connelly) is busy making PBS documentaries. Sarah and Brad merge their kids’ playdates, and from hereon in it’s only a matter of time before the modern Emma Bovary and her should-have-been Mr. Right are getting down in Sarah’s laundry room only to discover that while their archetypically American lives may yet have a second act, it could well end up as a tragedy.

Little Children is emotionally riveting, sporting converging storylines and some of the best acting of the past year. Winslet’s portrayal of a smart woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown is a powerful, affecting work, and Haley’s bizarrely stunted manboy is by turns pathetic, chilling and just flat-out sad. His performance here will give you the creeps for longer than you’d like, but it’s Winslet who steals Little Children. When she makes a desperate, final bid to reclaim her soul, it’s both horrifying and heart-rending.

What keeps Field’s film from being the emotional powerhouse it could have been lies with the sheer girth of the story, which has so many interrelated paths and so much suburban angst to deal with that it bogs down midway through. (Connelly, for one, gets short shrift here.)

Still, to its credit, the script (by Field and Tom Perrotta, who wrote the novel) never takes the easy way out, chiefly because for these characters there is no easy way out. Trapped in prisons of their own devising, no one seems to have much of an escape plan. Which only makes it that much more painfully true to life.
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