Setting the tone is the opening sequence, in which Todd (Patrick Wilson), a stay-at-home dad trying to pass the bar exam, comes under close carnal scrutiny by a bunch of young mothers. Clean-scrubbed Sarah (Kate Winslet) is dispatched from the group to see if she can elicit a forbidden contact with the “Prom King.” She succeeds, and despite her better intentions the pair -- he married to a careerist spouse (Jennifer Connelly), she to a boring corporate exec (Gregg Edelman) -- embarks on a torrid affair on stolen, languorous afternoons. Fields' aptly drawn parallels between Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Sarah define the character's adultery and subsequent fate.
Meanwhile, the catalyst that sparks further introspection and angst in the community is the appearance of a child molester who has returned to the neighborhood to live with his mother after a stint in prison. The community is quick to organize against him under the lead of local cop Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich), a macho bully who has his own secrets in the closet. But Field does not judge his characters harshly, even treading delicately on the controversial territory of the sex offender with considerable sensibility.
Echoing Sam Mendes' American Beauty and Todd Solondz's Happiness, Little Children should be potential Oscar material, thanks to the direction and performances, especially from Winslet and Wilson. Starring Kate Winslet, Jennifer Connelly, Patrick Wilson, Noah Emmerich, Jackie Earle Haley and Gregg Edelman. Directed by Todd Field. Written by Todd Field and Tom Perrotta. Produced by Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa and Todd Field. A New Line release. Drama. Rated R for strong sexuality and nudity, language and some disturbing content. Running time: 130 min.