It’s tough to know who the eponymous little children are in the new movie directed and co-written by Todd Field (writer/director of In the Bedroom). Is it the oblivious children that populate the swimming pool of the suburban utopia of East Wyndam? Is it the two protagonist parents, played by Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson, who have a torrid but doomed affair? Is it the convicted pervert who, living amid a menagerie of porcelain children, acts like one himself?

In Little Children, everything is a question of intent. But the fundamental mystery of this movie is whether it is meant to be sincere or satirical. Field’s controlled compostions and camera movements, which worked so perfectly for the grand tragedy of In the Bedroom, here seem self-parodying when coupled with voice of God narration that periodically dispenses rather withering observations. The musical score too, seems serious to the point of comedy with its epic romanticism, even scoring heroically a game of middle-aged men playing touch football.

But I like Little Children if for no other reason than it is a tonal anomaly, some rather generic storytelling heightened and made new by the methodical framing and intrusive narration.

Novelist Tom Perrotta, who also shares screenwriting credit for adapting this story, gave us sharp parody with his last big screen credit, Election. Here, the parody is less overt, subverted by the rather consequential outcomes of the various storylines, especially the subplot about a ‘convicted pervert’ (an excellent Jackie Earle Harvey) harrassed by an ex-cop looking for a cause (Noah Emmerich). Another plot line wastes Jennifer Connelly as Wilson’s character’s suspicious and gorgeous wife. It doesn’t take much to mock the pretentions of upper middle class suburbia. But it takes a great deal of effort to walk the fine line Perotta and his interpreters walk here between satire and sympathy.

Much press has centered on the steamy sex scenes between Winslet and Wilson. They are indeed steamy, but they are not the hightlight of Winslet’s performance. Her genius at acting interior turbulence often makes the narration of her thoughts seem reductive and insufficient. Her moments of hesitant seduction are among steamiest and craftiest turns.

There is the possibility that Field didn’t plan on Winslet outshining the narrative. Certainly several other perfomances, including Wilson’s at times, verge on wooden; something that shouldn’t happen when a former actor like Field wears a director’s cap. Luckily Field, anointed by Kubrick, more than compensates with his mastery of camera technique.

In balance, Little Children is a worthy experiment in wry storytelling. It lacks the valence of In the Bedroom or laugh-out-loudness of Election, but is nonetheless an enjoyable collaboration between a talented writer, director and actress.

Forbes on Film interviews Field and Winslet