In Todd Field's Little Children, Jackie Earle Haley plays recently released sex offender Ronnie McGorvey. Haley's Oscar-nominated performance was, despite his role, one of the feel-good stories of this past Oscar season; after a promising career in the late '70s (The Bad News Bears, Breaking Away)he had faded into obscurity.
Upon finally seeing this movie I was struck by how much deeper Haley's performance cut than those of the main characters Sarah (Kate Winslet) and Brad (Patrick Wilson). These two meet with their kids at the playground, and after the better part of a sexually charged summer become lovers. Neither has fully engaged with much of their adult life, and both are caught in unsatisfactory marriages.
Winslet gives Sarah just the right amount of self-involvement to make her not entirely likeable and to arguably account for Little Children not reaching a wider audience. All of the characters come up short in their own ways; if you like complications this movie's for you, but it's not easy to root for anyone.
Ronnie McGorvey is much talked about before his entrance in Little Children; an attempt to go for a swim causes a panic and empties the town pool. The only one is Ronnie's corner is his mother (Phyllis Somerville), who arranges a blind date for her son that ends (in the film's most disturbing scene) on a troubling note. Disgraced cop Larry (excellent Noah Emmerich) has become obsessed with menancing him, and the town is plastered with posters of his face.
Haley (and Field w/ cowriter & original novel author Tom Perrotta) never makes Ronnie into a merely a monster, but rather a man who understands just how dangerous he is to others. In the pool scene, McGorvey uses a mask to ogle young girls underwater before being discovered. At dinner with his date (Jane Adams), he checks out a middle schooler at the next table. But as the characters' fates fall into place on one very busy night, Ronnie is absorbed into the community to a degree. The movie gives him (and us) the gift of coming to grips with the pain of life's mileposts.
Ronnie's fate isn't clear at the end of Little Children, and it's not all clear he has escaped his demons or accounted for all his sins. But Jackie Earle Haley's performance will be what lingers after the closing credits. See this movie on DVD if you haven't had a chance yet.