The titular children are immaterial in “Little Children,” everywhere and nowhere at once. The film’s episodic odyssey of modern suburbia has them kin to cheating parents, the sitting-duck targets of a released pedophile and, most ominously, witnesses of the foolish exploits of the film’s adults, who are not so far off from children themselves.
The second feature from actor/director Todd Field, whose first film, “In the Bedroom,” remains the consummate American masterpiece of the past decade, “Little Children” is haunted by an implacable menace that envelopes the characters’ lives. Set in desolate midsummer, the film’s main arc concerns Sarah (Kate Winslet), who fancies herself an “anthropologist” studying the behavior of suburban women.
In a long, amusingly narrated opening sequence set in a sunny park, Sarah’s dispassion with being a mother is clear, looking on as the other women chat about their depressing sex lives. Suddenly, a man arrives, who the other women have christened “The Prom King” (Patrick Wilson, “Hard Candy”). Someone bets Sarah $5 she can’t get his number. She does, and a kiss, setting off a chain reaction the inevitably leads to many long afternoons with the man and his son, and, eventually, an affair.
The Prom King, or Brad, has a story too- he has a gorgeous wife (Jennifer Connelly, “House of Sand and Fog”) and a beautiful son, products of a life that has become quietly dissatisfying for him. When his filmmaker wife sends him off to study for the bar exam every night, he skips the library and watches neighborhood teens skateboard at a nearby park, seeing in them an escape, a reminder of the possibilities he once had himself.
Meanwhile, not many streets away, a convicted pedophile returns to his mother’s home, the target of a “committee of concerned parents” who are outraged he has moved so close to the city’s parks. His mother tries to set him up on a date. “Maybe if you get a girlfriend closer to your own age, it will help,” she tells him. “I don’t want a girlfriend my own age, Mom,” he replies. “I wish I did.”
These parallel stories converge in the customary fashion, but what really interests Field is looking at the underbelly of the idyllic streets where his camera so fondly lingers. Often the third-person narrator (like the contemplative voice-over in Alfonso Cuar