Wild Childs 

"Little Children" offers a moral lesson in the suburbs.

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Maybe you enjoy your tales of adultery scrubbed of ambiguity and treated with light humor and a heavy dose of morality. If so, there's "Little Children," the follow-up from Todd Field, as a director noted for his morose parental revenge debut, "In the Bedroom."

"Little Children" is much bouncier, with the trappings of a serious indie film, too, but with the spirit of a romantic comedy. It even has a surprisingly likable narrator, the kind of satiric voice you might imagine when reading a 19th-century English novel. The story, based on a popular novel by Tom Perrotta, is about an illicit affair in suburban America between two bored housewives. The twist is that one of them is a man.

Tall, dark and handsome Brad (Patrick Wilson) is known around the playground as "the Prom King" because he's the one lonely male "mom." He enthralls the imaginations of the other mothers, who think about him constantly but never work up the courage to say hello. That is, until frumpy Sarah (Kate Winslet) breaks ranks and in an act of rebellion strikes up a conversation. Throwing salt on the wounds of her comrades, she also gives him a hug and a kiss goodbye, sending the prim women scurrying away with their tots in horror.

The two eventually embark upon a long summer friendship, broken only by a presumably inescapable downpour one day when the two cross the line into adultery. In their own minds each has a reason to break the social code. Brad is married to svelte Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), a cold and self-centered, if successful, documentary filmmaker, who scolds him and watches every nickel he spends. Sarah's Richard (Gregg Edelman) doesn't seem such a bad fellow by comparison, but you catch a glimpse of the film's target audience when he's caught and hanged for checking out some soft-core porn on the Internet. Poor devil.

Sarah wants Brad to make a getaway with her, and the more the movie concerns itself with their attempts to break free, the less chance it seems to have of becoming anything more than a work of popular (read: unlikely) fiction. A weird subplot about a sexual predator (Jackie Earle Haley) is interwoven to add significance, but it tends to have the opposite effect. Perrotta's material is witty, and Field has the skill to turn it into likable popcorn drama. But the story is too self-conscious and the conclusions are too pat. These aren't human beings we're gazing at; they're characters. They're as aware of being in a movie as we are of watching one. (R) 130 min. *** S

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