In recent years there has been no shortage of Hollywood (or faux-indie, at least) examinations of dysfunctional families – and why not? These films are cheap, easy to shoot and often get the attention of Academy voters.
Our neighbors to the north produce quite a few of these on their own, with the latest to cross the border (thanks to the fine work of Film Movement) being Falling Angels, directed by Scott Smith and based on a novel by Barbara Gowdy.
Jim (Callum Keith Rennie) and Mary (Miranda Richardson) come from different walks of life; he is an ex-soldier that watched his brother die on the battlefield, she used to be a dancer. This dysfunctional couple gave birth to three clichés…er…daughters: The late 60s rebellious teenager Lou (Katharine Isabelle), the pretty, future house/trophy wife Sandy (Kristin Adams) and the frumpy, quiet shy one, Norma (Monte Gagne). Now, with Jim finding it harder to control his rage and Mary barely-there after years of alcohol abuse, circumstances both outside and inside the family's sphere of influence force everyone to reexamine just how they got there and where to go now.
Told in a time-shifting narrative (starting at the end, telling most the story in flashback and then adding another flashback inside the first one), Falling Angels has the luxury of picking up wherever it wants in time because there's no story to be found. There's no inciting incident, there's very little arc and there's no real plot. It relies on a set of characters – some interesting, some flat – to keep the viewer entertained.
The main problem with this approach, of course, is that it puts a lot of pressure on each individual character. Some, like Lou and Sandy, never really leap off the page. Despite the efforts of Isabelle and Adams, respectively, Lou and Sandy remain two-dimensional throughout.
Norma, however, is something else entirely. Her shy exterior hides two different character motivations. To say anything else would give away some of the film's best moments, but suffice to say they are both interesting enough to make the viewer want more.
The film's biggest drawback is Jim, whose ex-military persona and outrageous actions (abusive on the verge of psychosis) never let up and, therefore, never allow the audience to see what Mary would have seen in him. How did these two get together? Why did she fall so in love with this man, so much in love that she could never leave him no matter what she suffered through?
With these answers never sufficiently answered, Falling Angels just lurches along. There are moments in each of the characters' lives that are interesting (especially Sandy's relationship with a local married man more than twice his age (played with understated creepiness by Mark McKinney, quickly building his reputation as King of the Canadian Indie), but it is not enough to add up to an interesting film.
The anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen presentation of Falling Angels is sharp. There are few, if any, digital flaws, with the main problems being in the film itself (director Smith appears to have intentionally shot the film soft, for the idea of "nostalgia").
The English 2.0 track is clear in most situations. However, there is a great disparity in the dialogue volume at times, making it difficult to find one volume setting that is neither too loud on occasion nor too soft in other scenes.
All Film Movement DVDs come with a short film in addition to the feature. Possibly to offset the heavy tone of Falling Angels, this disc includes Ten, a (very) short film by Chicago filmmaker Scott Smith (no relation to the Scott Smith that directs Falling Angels. It is the equivalent to three minutes of cotton candy, depicting how a man can manage to commit all ten mortal sins before work. It's cute, very funny, and a worthy of making the Film Movement cut.
Other special features include text biographies, a list of other recent Film Movement titles, and closed captioning for the hearing impaired.
The best independent films bring the viewer something that can't be seen in mainstream cinema, something that major studios won't support with millions of dollars and Jude Law. Falling Angels does not break any new ground in its depiction of stifling suburban life in the late 60s. It is, ultimately, competent and forgettable – worthy of a purchase for those who love family dramas, but otherwise strictly a rental.