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TIFF: Kids at play

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"Beauty is overrated": Patrick Wilson to Kate Winslet in "Little Children."

What are your expectations about the second feature directed by Todd Field (Nick Nightingale in "Eyes Wide Shut") after "In the Bedroom"? Ditch them -- a smart thing to do before watching any movie. If "In the Bedroom" was the child of Chabrol (specifically "La Femme Infidel"), "Little Children" takes a sample of Todd Solondz's DNA. I don't think it's giving away anything too important to say that "Little Children" is a melodramatic tragi-comedy (co-written by novelist Tom "Election" Perratta, based on his novel), and that the title refers not so much to wee ones who have been born recently as to the immature young adults who are now faced with raising their offspring.

It's a funny, frustrating, even infuriating film -- and at Toronto people seemed to either love it or hate it. I know I did. It just depended on the scene. I think I appreciate it more now, 24 hours later, than I did the moment it was over. It's an odd film, with a wryly intrusive, deep-voiced narrator who appears to be standing just behind the screen reading excerpts from the novel.

"Little Children" takes place over the course of one summer in a hermetic, parochial and puritanical (surprise!) small town in New England, a part of the country I admit I find rather creepy, stultifying and alien. As its monicker suggests, it's not quite Old World (though definitely mired in a calcified European-style social/financial hierarchy), and not quite contemporary American, either. (I'm just admitting my prejudices here; yes, I suppose this story could have taken place anywhere, but it doesn't.) The movie captures that suffocating feeling splendidly; it's as palpable as the stifling summer humidity. Every character is deeply entrenched in some kind of rut from the past, and consequently seems to have long-ago forgotten what it's like to be alive. For now, everybody's just going through the zombified motions, one day at a time.

At heart, it's a story of three couples, and three sets of children. Sarah (Kate Winslet) has a Master's in English Lit. and views her own child as an alien being to whom she feels little connection. The key: She can't get the kid to ride in the child safety seat, so they have to walk everywhere. She's married to Richard (Gregg Edelman), whose crime is not so much that he visits dirty web sites as that he's in "branding," wears a sweater around his neck at dinner, and is thoroughly repulsive and insufferable.

Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) is a documentary filmmaker so wrapped up in her "work" (which looks pretty trite and conventionally manipulative) that she spends hardly any time with her former Golden Boy husband Brad (Patrick Wilson) and their son. Kathy runs their marriage like a line producer. Perhaps the most horrifying scene in the movie is when Brad finds a bill for three magazine subscriptions on the table, with the titles circled and a note from his wife: "Do you really need these?"

The third couple is a convicted flasher with the requisite three names common to all convicts, Ronald James McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley, of "Breaking Away" and "Bad News Bears") his mom, May (Phyllis Somerville), who live together in an old house full of clocks and kiddie tchotchkes. Ronny knows he suffers from pedophiliac compulsions, but Mommy knows he's a good boy who just needs to find a girl his own age. "I don't want a girl my own age," he says.

So, everyone is haunted by something they've done in the past, or are doing in the present, and feels guilty about it, but not enough to change. They're all unlikable and shallow (which is not necessarily a bad thing in a movie). Melodramatic incidents pile up near the end to teach almost everyone a lesson and tie up the interwoven storylines.

One strange caveat: Brad, who is good-looking in a bland and generic way, makes a comment about his wife Kathy's beauty that upsets Sarah, even though she's pushed him to tell her. And, yes, Jennifer Connelly is a stunning woman -- though she's photographed to look thin and hard here. Winslet, on the other hand, is supposed to be plain -- when, in fact, she's such a voluptuous, natural beauty that it seems ridiculous nobody in the movie even seems to notice.

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