If you listen carefully, just over the echoes of children at play, you can hear the rhythm of an approaching commuter train, carrying Boston's work force home to suburban life. Welcome to picturesque East Wyndham, where despite its seemingly flawless landscape of brick facades, perfectly manicured lawns and neighborly smiles, some very dirty, little secrets lurk just beneath the tracks. But unlike the title Little Children suggests, it is anything but the pint-sized suburbanites who cause for alarm. Instead, it is the desperate, and often disturbing, adolescent indiscretions of Woodward Court's thirty-somethings that are about to send unexpected shockwaves through an otherwise tranquil community.

At the epicenter is Sarah (Kate Winslet), a PhD-educated feminist who finds herself trapped as a stay-at-home mom - unhappily married to an older, porn-obsessed husband (Gregg Edelman), and forced to care for an â"unknowable little person" who demands all of her time and attention. The antithesis of the â"typical suburban woman," she looks with disfavor upon the clique of playground mothers who, when not scheduling Tuesday night sex or children's snack-time, revel in their present mommy-hood. Sarah, however, prefers to spend her time alone, finding her repressed fantasies in the pages of Madame Bovary, hungering for the self-indulgent life she lost upon giving birth.

Although ostracized from the other mothers, Sarah becomes intrigued by their schoolgirl chatter over â"The Prom King," (Patrick Wilson), a sexy, stay-at-home dad and former college football star, whose occasional presence sparks a playground commotion. Playing summer daycare by the pool, then supposedly studying for (and repeatedly failing) the bar exam in the evenings, Brad is perpetually out of touch with reality. In fact, unbeknownst to his icy, over-worked trophy wife, Kathryn (Jennifer Connelly), Brad never quite makes it to the library; instead, finding a voyeuristic diversion in the carefree, teenage lifestyle of the local skate park.

On a dare, Sarah introduces herself to Brad, only to find that the two new friends share a strangely magnetic connection in both their loneliness and desire for something â"more." After sharing an impulsive playground kiss, the couple and their children begin to spend the lazy days of summer beside the community pool, indulging in a thrilling charade of marriage. That excitement - of having someone openly support your decisions and most importantly, making you feel alive again - sparks a sexual attraction that explodes into a dangerously tumultuous, almost-public affair.

Luckily for them, the community is in a pre-occupied uproar over the arrival of recently-released sex offender, Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), who despite his â"Mommy's" (Phyllis Somerville) pleas for him to â"be a good boy" and meet a girl closer to his own age, finds that his pedophilic compulsion becomes frighteningly uncontainable. In an effort to â"save the children" (although his motivations run much deeper), ex-cop Larry (Noah Emmerick) forms a one man lynch mob to enforce â"homeland security" against a vile, public threat in Ronnie. But when that security turns into a criminal obsession, Larry, Sarah, Brad and Ronnie's lives will become forever bound by a summer of chilling behavior.

Based on the novel Little Children by Tom Perrotta (Election), Director Tom Fields (In the Bedroom) has meticulously crafted an unbelievably smart and sensual slice of suburbia that, like Sam Mendes' American Beauty, is as humorous in its childish regressions as it is haunting in its reality. With every judgmental glance, sexual impropriety and internal conflict wryly narrated by PBS's Will Lyman, it plays like a compelling, adult docudrama with unrestricted access into the human condition - piercing the veil of superficial perfection, studying the struggle against domestic dysfunction and echoing that familiar longing to rekindle the passion of adolescence. Never before has suburban angst been this thought-provoking, or this disturbingly delicious.

Despite its inherent beauty, Little Children is emotionally alarming. Perhaps it is that we painstakingly find a piece of our mundane selves in these misguided characters, laugh at their adolescent behavior and sympathize with their yearning for an alternative. Or maybe, as parents, we can feel the paralyzing fear of a sexual predator walking amongst our children. Either way, visualizing those innate sensibilities is what Fields does best. In one breath, Fields can evoke compassion for a self-loathing Ronnie whose suburban imprisonment is forged by a harassing community that believes castration is the answer to its fears. But then, just when the sea of mug-shot fliers that decorate his home appears inhumane, Fields shocks the eyes with an underwater scene of Ronnie swimming among the bare-bottomed children. It is one that will leave a churning knot in your stomach and have you reaching for the knife, yourself.

Likewise, Perrotta has the extraordinary ability to shy away from a series of deep-seated plots and instead, allow us to be driven solely by a unique band of grossly engaging and complex characters. Led by the always exceptional Kate Winslet, this stellar cast embodies the perfect blend of loud, black comedy and quiet creepiness in their quests for redemption. And although Perrotta's â"children" dance on the edge irresponsibility at the expense of their families, they do so with such a charisma that we find ourselves emotionally invested in their happiness (or lack thereof). Like a train wreck, it is impossible to look away.

It is together, however, that Fields and Perrotta capture the irony of Little Children in that it is the parents, and not the children, who are tragically flawed. Be it through an incomplete dissertation or failure to study for the bar, Sarah and Brad purposefully remain one step away from graduating into reality so that they can contain life to a crush-infused summer vacation. Larry and Brad lead the tongue-in-cheek â"Guardians" football league in an effort to relive the glory days of touchdown passes under Friday night lights. Football fields, pools, playgrounds and skate parks are where suburbia's elite meet to evade responsibility and paint their toenails blue. Nevertheless, when Sarah cries, it is her daughter who rubs her hair and tells Mommy that everything will be okay. It is the neglected children who assist each other at the water fountains. And it is the children who become the voice of reason to parents who, like moths, continually flutter around the flame, despite the burn.

Ultimately, the big achievement of Little Children is that while it promises a resolution, it does not promise that it will be pretty - and that is what cements this film as an absorbingly provocative and intelligent slice of life that, like American Beauty and In the Bedroom, should be respected for its grace as well as its guts.


DVD Details:

Screen formats: Widescreen Anamorphic 2.35:1

Subtitles: English; Spanish

Language and Sound: Closed Captioned; English: Dolby Digital 5.1; English: Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround

Other Features: Color; interactive menus; scene access.

Number of discs: - 1- Keepcase packaging