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'Little Children' has strong cast

"Little Children" is a remarkable film with a strong cast, led by Oscar nominees Kate Winslet and Jackie Earle Haley.

Though the movie is set in a seemingly languid suburban neighborhood in Massachusetts, during a long, humid summer, the narrative is often raw and unsettling. What quickly becomes evident is that the characters possess inner lives that belie their placid exteriors.

At the center of the film is Sara Pierce (Kate Winslet), mother of a three-year-old daughter, and an expatriate from grad school where she was earning a Ph.D. in literature. She now finds herself seated almost daily on a park bench, along with three other women, watching their collective gaggle of children play, and listening to an endless exchange of conversation-lite from which she often feels excluded. In voice over, we hear a sonorous voice explain that Sara feels like an anthropologist observing the behavior of a tribe that she can never be a part of.

Into the park one late morning comes Brad (Patrick Wilson), a stay-at-home dad carrying his young son on his shoulders. He has been missing, Sara's told, for weeks and now has returned. He's called the prom king by the women, and the subject of much conversation and fantasy. But like all of their interaction, there is an edge to their comments. The three regulars are all delighted that he has returned, though his presence is also, in some elusive way, disturbing.

Clearly, Sara, and the other women share a privileged circumstance. They are swathed in the cowl of affluence, yet have not found an antidote to a nudging malaise that seems to filter into all aspect of their lives, despite the pitched battle fought with all the emotional and material flotsam and jetsam that affluence can afford.

When Brad and Sara finally meet and talk &

as a result of a dare by one of the park bench regulars &

something awakens in both of them that is disturbing and relentless. They begin to see in each other safe harbor, a place where they can feel alive, validated, free of the burdens of all those decisions, great and small, that they have made that has brought them to this point in their lives.

What they can't do, no matter all the evidence to the contrary, is know one another. All is illusion, a mirage, a result of hope and projection and wish fulfillment. The film telegraphs, over and over, that what is taking place, their growing attachment and need, will end badly. How can it not?

But not only is the ecology of the lives of Brad and Sara disturbed, but the community's tranquility is unhinged when Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), jailed for two years for exposing himself, is released from prison and returns to live with his mother. His presence adds to the tension that permeates the film, a reminder that there are those among us so damaged as to render society powerless regarding how to effectively respond. Though flyers are posted everywhere with his photo, many feel a raging impotence. The word castration is angrily suggested.

Winslet does a remarkable job of capturing the ennui of Sara, her face bright with hope and then closed in despair, mirroring her inner struggle to find what she believes is happiness. It's a wonderful performance. As is that of Jackie Earle Haley as the simmering pedophile who cannot change who he is: pathetic and ill-fated. "Little Children" is a film not to be missed: disturbing to be sure, but engaging from the first frame. It's filmmaking at its best.