Horribly miscast in All the King's Men, Kate Winslet more than redeems herself in Little Children, and should certainly earn a Best Actress nomination for her trouble. Sarah is a smart, self-aware stay-at-home mum - maybe too smart for her own good. She doesn't fit in with the soccer moms at the park, but she doesn't want to abandon her daughter to child-care.
Sarah is as shocked as anyone when a casual conversation with Brad (Patrick Wilson), the only stay-at-home dad in the vicinity ends in a very public kiss. Naturally she is careful to avoid him for a spell, but then she discovers her husband getting intimate with his computer - a pair of panties pulled over his head - and decides to throw caution to the winds.
With its sardonic omniscient narrator, Little Children has a distinctly literary feel. In one scene Sarah attends a book club and mounts a passionate defence of Flaubert's Madame Bovary as a feminist heroine, which is clearly how she would like to see herself. Yet her affair with Brad seems like a day-dream. When she gets a look at his wife (Jennifer Connelly) she practically throws up, she's so beautiful.
'Beauty is overrated,' Brad assures her - he's handsome enough to say something as dumb as that. Supposedly sitting his bar exams for the third time, he actually devotes his study time to hanging outside the library watching the teenagers skateboard, or playing American football with a team of testosterone-packed cops. Has he been emasculated by his high-achieving wife, or is he just an overgrown kid himself?
Directed by Todd Field (In the Bedroom) and based on a novel by Tom Perrotta, whose Election (1999) also took a beady view of an extra-marital liaison, Little Children tests preconceptions about parenting and gender roles even as it develops a provocative subplot about a known sex offender (Jackie Earle Haley) who lives with his mother in the same suburban neighbourhood.
Haley - fondly remembered by some of us for Peter Yates' Breaking Away many moons ago - manages to make Ronnie both skin-crawlingly repellent and oddly pathetic (in the true sense of the word). Stage veteran Phyllis Somerville is even better as his long-suffering but entirely practical mother, who continues to love her boy no matter what. In fact theirs is the most loving maternal relationship in the movie.
This is a film that dares to hold its characters at arm's length - Todd Field had a supporting role in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, and has talked about Barry Lyndon as an influence - though Lolita might be as relevant for its unsentimental satiric take on the abjections of sexual compulsion.
The ending is genuinely shocking, and without giving anything away I have to say I found it excessive and highly questionable (I didn't much care for the ending of In the Bedroom either). That apart, there's no question this is one of the outstanding Hollywood movies of the year, a genuinely grown up film that suggests we're all little children at heart - but not in a good way.