Tales of family disintegration have been around since man first threw mammoth blood on a cave wall. This devolution has been the basis of great literature, inspiring everyone from Shakespeare to Sontag. Dys-functional families serve as reminders of how fragile and vulnerable love and relation-ships can be, and their presence in movies allow us to look into the window without fear.

Once such film is Little Children, a disconsolate drama about lonely, bored, yet still yearning suburbanites looking for something resembling life. Like American Beauty, Blue Velvet and Ordinary People, Little Children is a brave film.

It takes chances, challenging us with characters who say and do the most unexpected things. Writer-director Todd Field (co-written with author Tom Perrotta) plays on our expectations, setting up moments guaranteed to elicit certain reactions. Then the filmmakers throw us a curve ball, reminding us not to believe or accept everything we hear or see.

It’s an important lesson. Instead of giving characters the benefit of a doubt, we’ve been preconditioned to suspect the worst. Maybe it is the nature of the beast. Dys-functional dramas rarely end happily, so it’s difficult to invest in the characters. Bad drama becomes melodrama and great drama transcends the obvious, making it easy to care about characters, even if they have a short shelf life.

Little Children is great drama. Its shelf life is extended by a thoughtful, intelligent screen-play taking ordinary situations and characters and turning them into people worth spending time with. Little Children comes with very little pretense. It is what it is, a mirror reflecting the smallest details of suburbia. The reflection may look flawless but, as we get closer, we start to notice the small cracks in the mirror, knowing that, with just enough weight, the world will shatter, exposing reality underneath.

Nothing could be more real for Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) and Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) than the moments they share at the local playground and swimming pool. Sarah and Brad are the perfect couple, but they’re not married to each other. They’re not even married to the idea of being married, at least to their respective partners.

Sarah is married to Richard (Greg Edelman), whose pursuit of work and Internet porn has left him little time for his wife and daughter. Brad shares his bed with wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), a documentary film-maker who comes from money, but has little time to document the life of their son.

It is only a matter of time before Sarah and Brad meet at the park, first on a dare, but as they get to know and understand each other, using their children as a reason to meet.

Then the dynamic of the neighborhood changes. Moving into his mother’s house is Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), a recently paroled child sex predator. Ronnie’s presence creates the usual outrage, es-pecially from ex-cop Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich), who has made Ronnie his personal crusade.

Of course we hate Ronnie and, as played by Haley, the former child star of The Bad News Bears, he instantly gets under our skin. Every time he gets near a child, we want to scream out. Then something strange happens. The writers refuse to stack the cards against Ronnie. We know he spent time for exposing himself to a minor, but that’s all. We don’t know the details, if it was sexual, a prank or just a drunken mistake. So after spending time with Ronnie and his mother (Phyllis Somerville), we let down out guard. We even feel good after his mother encourages him to start dating girls his own age.

That line, that little clue, unlocks a closet of dark secrets, and the filmmakers are wise to take their time exposing the truth rather than springing it on us all at once. When Ronnie is out on his first date, we sit there, hoping with all our might that the evening will end well. The outcome dictates the direction the remainder of the film takes.

Kate Winslet is a brave actress, completely investing herself in the character. Not once do we see beneath the performance. Sarah is the most complex character in Little Children, and Winslet incor-porates those complexities in every reference. You don’t just see the loss and loneliness in her eyes; you believe it. There’s a reason Sarah sits on a bench separate from the other mothers. They all pretend their suburban lives are perfect, but they’re nothing more than furniture with plastic covering so they never get dirty or used.

Sarah may be lonely, but at least she’s honest about her loneliness. So, as the other women lust after the Prom King (Wilson), Sarah makes contact. While her brashness upsets the daydreamers, it encourages Brad. There’s a great moment when Sarah buys a sexy red bathing suit. We’re led to believe it’s to help save her marriage, but when we see where she wears it and for whom, we are once again reminded that things are not always what they seem.

With his blond, wavy hair, blue eyes and mile-wide grin, Brad is the ultimate pinup boy for bored housewives. He’s the real deal, a hunk, family man and rascal, and Wilson fulfills all those requirements. I like Wilson, especially after having seen his extremely intense performance in Hard Candy. He likes to take chances and isn’t afraid to make Brad a sexual animal. Wilson makes it easy for us to understand why these women want to tame him.

As Brad’s wife, Jennifer Connelly fleshes out limited screen time into a powerful performance, while Jane Adams takes the small role of Ronnie’s first date and turns it into an endurance test of shock and dismay.

Former actor Phillips hits all the right notes as director, never allowing the characters to turn drama into melo-drama. Like the actors, he keeps it real, and perhaps that is why Little Children leaves an impression.