If Discovery Channel examined the extraordinary behavior of humans—and hired Tom Perotta and Todd Fields to write the narration—the end product would look something like Little Children, a masterpiece study of human behavior.

Within a minute of Children, you’re sucked in, ready to align yourself with Sarah (a refreshingly frumpy yet simmering Kate Winslet). As she wastes her life sitting in a park with the other neighborhood housewives, she reminds herself to “think like an anthropologist” and take note of the conversational topics: “how tired they were…the eating, sleeping and defecating habits of their offspring.” Yes, Children is a laugh-out-loud satire that really picks up speed when Sarah starts an affair with a stay-at-home dad/bar-exam-failure named Todd (Patrick Wilson). This isn’t a flowery affair, and they’re both very picky: He fixates on her in spite of her appearance, and she wonders if he isn’t an idiot when he makes a remark about beauty.

But wait! There is another story: A convicted child molester (Jackie Earle Haley) has moved to this small-minded small town. And Todd’s buddy Larry (Noah Emmerich) is obsessed with taking the perp down, a task not easily accomplished because of the perp’s devout mother (Phyllis Somerville).

If it sounds like there are two movies going on here—a suburban farce with scenes at the dinner table, the book club and the bored married couple’s bedroom versus a suspenseful tale of a bad seed’s homecoming—it’s because there are. Children is a psychological landscape, one that could have easily played out over eight hours in an HBO miniseries. And there are moments when you think Fields needed more time. In the final act, for example, the stories converge. It’s tightly edited but gives you little time to bid goodbye to these characters. We don’t get enough of Todd and Sarah’s respective spouses (Jennifer Connelly and Gregg Edelman), which is confusing.

But confusing is good. Discovery Channel documentaries don’t pretend to have the answers to why animals do what they do. And Todd Fields doesn’t go for any lame explanations or conclusions either. Whether isolated from their marriages or isolated from society, adults are damn complicated. Finally, here’s a film that embraces human nature instead of twisting it into something ridiculously palatable.
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