Little Children review

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A rustle in the manicured hedgerows; chintzy clocks ticking and tapping; the far-away hoot of a freight train... At the pool, swelling heat wave and paedo-panic. In the park, desolate housewives chatter of spa treatments, maternity leave, nappy contents. Something, clearly, has got to give... Todd Field’s second feature (after In The Bedroom) prickles with sterile threat and looming suburban doom. Smartly adapting Tom Perrotta’s celebrated novel, Field takes his good time finessing flesh around initially cartoonish characters, clenching the tension to an almost unbearable final 15 minutes before grinding home a rabbit-punch of a reveal (oohs, aahs and ouches at the preview screening).

Winslet is outstanding, stumbling convincingly through the emotional fallout of her character’s moment of madness/ clarity. At first, grey-eyed and defeated; then cute, sparkling; then simmering with sexual thirst; then breathless and ablaze at the promise of escape. Wilson (shifting tone from Hard Candy’s luckless kiddy-stalker) plays Brad saucer-eyed, gawky and emasculated. “There’s no reason why fathers can’t be primary care-givers,” crows a dummy mummy. Field’s retort is implicit: he can’t keep his mind on the job because there’s a distraction between his legs...

Brad pines for his youth by spectating the local skate-bums and cheats middle-aged liability by repeatedly flunking his bar exam. At first, the sensual tingle with Sarah is kept at amused arm’s length, but they eventually submit, in a burst of hot and hasty flash-fucks (twilight face-sucking on the football field; hungry humps in the loft; up against the cold, concrete wall of the laundry room, dryer shuddering...).

For some, the American Beauty-style narration, delivered in creamy baritone, will be a problem. But Field works it in sparingly as a crisp editorial chorus, directly hijacking paragraphs from Perrotta’s novel to rummage deeper inside his characters’ churning motivations (“We want what we want and there’s nothing we can do about it”). Winslet and Wilson’s sexual re-awakening is the film’s erotic pulse, but Jackie Earle Haley’s coiled turn as demonised sex-pest Ronnie is its dark heartbeat. As the community clucks with outrage, he glides through their still waters: predatory and primal, crystal-blue eyes shining with torment. You’ll struggle to scrub him from memory.

Like all of Little Children’s characters, Ronnie is simply struggling to keep his basic instincts tamed beneath the exacting gaze of the adult world. Such a broad scattering of uncomfortable truth isn’t easy to digest and a few of the side-stories feel flabby. But Field gathers everything in a climax that trains a brutal light on the big idea: living is easy, growing up is hard.

Domestic bliss. Sly, sexy adult drama with brains and balls. Rangey turns all round, with stand-out Winslet back on fiery Eternal Sunshine form.

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