The parent trap

Director Todd Field’s film “Little Children” finds the hidden monsters in suburbia

Michael Garberich

Let me show you where monsters lie: The lawns are green and well-kempt; the bushes are manicured, the flowers potted; the trees are leafy and the breeze that rustles them, gentle; the playground is neat and populated, and the pool is communal. And as for the homes – the tightly situated, two-story ones with the spacious porticos, fresh paint and ample, harmonically positioned windows – why, that’s where they lie. I’ve seen them! And they are horrific in the best imaginable guise.

“Little Children”
STARRING: Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly
PLAYING AT: Lagoon Theater

For the adapted screenplay of “Little Children,” director Todd Field (“In the Bedroom”) collaborated with Tom Perrotta, author of the film’s eponymous source. In so doing, the two have created a beautiful monster, as much emblazoned with Field’s eye as it is inscribed by Perrotta’s pen.

But the monsters dwelling in “Little Children,” unlike the Freddy Krueger/Michael Myers horror crop, lead more typically “suburban” lifestyles, campaigning for neighborhood safety and following a strict systematized “snack time” regimen.

Though predictably imminent, their denudation is indebted to patience, a chord stricken early and maintained throughout the film. It is the true mark of craftsmanship, and although the genre (drama) as well as the subject (suburban dysfunction) might seem, to some, exhausted à la “American Beauty” or television’s “Desperate Housewives,” here it is rejuvenated.

As Sarah – a stay-at-home mom whose successful husband sublimates his sexual urges online, wearing a pair of women’s undergarments like a surgical mask – Kate Winslet is the college feminist-cum-domestic who’s yet to abandon the transcendental promises of her literature degree and assimilate to the stringencies of so many Stepford Wives.

In an early scene, seated on a bench separate from her three fellow homemakers while their children swing, climb and otherwise entertain themselves, she has absent-mindedly forgotten her daughter’s snack – a breach of social conduct that prompts several gasps and narrowed eyes of disapproval. But through the words of the narrator, the literary exactitude of which enriches rather than belabors, we are informed of her relish in such transgressions: she has yet to consign herself to the artificiality, or so perceived, of this particular adulthood and its milieu.

But that act, by no means acceptable by the three women’s normative expectations, is child’s play (pun intended) compared to Sarah’s next scandal during the same scene.

On a juvenile dare that hints toward the title’s intentions, Sarah approaches Brad, the former college athlete with the lean, beautiful wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly). Her busy career as a PBS documentarian leaves him as the sole father among the playground attendees (he half-heartedly pursues the bar exam) whom the other three women admire from afar and cloyingly refer to as “the Prom King.” But the adolescent jest ends abruptly when the two impassion the encounter with an incendiary kiss, sparking a clandestine, adulterous romance.

The mechanics behind their relationship are basic, but the engineering, the precise calibration of their surreptitious glances – a visual language in which Field is fluent – charges the narrative with a complex array of sexual tension, amounting to a fulfillment tinged with apprehension.

A subplot that aptly remains in the background for two-thirds of the film involves Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), a pedophile who has recently been released to live with his mother in the quaint Massachusetts neighborhood, and Larry (Noah Emmerich), a cop forced into retirement for the accidental shooting and killing of a 13-year-old boy. The accident explains his obsession with Ronnie, and their many exchanges on Ronnie’s mother’s (Phyllis Somerville) doorstep reveal the monster’s residence – not specifically Ronnie’s home, but the home in general.

The apogee of “Little Children” draws everyone from their sheltered homes in an act of passive violence that precipitates into the ultimate exposure of each character’s monstrosity.

When it ends, an unsettling air of closure looms over the recently upturned utopia. The previously swept and sunny oak-lined streets are cast in the shadow of nighttime, while every unraveled thread appears neatly mended. But far from restoring the scrubbed and polished finish of the American Dream, “Little Children” leaves you on edge, fully aware of what lies behind that presentable façade.