A movie capable of surprise is no small feat. Snow Angels is one of those all-too-rare films, a tale that gives its sad, complicated characters room to breathe, act and -- most impressively -- confound expectations. This reviewer has not always been enamored with the self-consciously lyrical filmmaking of indie phenom David Gordon Green, but here, in his first adaptation of someone else's work, the director shows an exposed nerve of raw, honest emotion.
Situations that arise might seem clichéd, but what unfolds is hardly formulaic. Snow Angels isn't always an easy picture to watch, but it is always absorbing.
Based on the 2003 novel by Stewart O'Nan, Snow Angels details the intersecting lives of a handful of people in a small town in Western Pennsylvania. The film begins where the story ends, with the eruption of distant gunshots interrupting practice for a high school marching band.
A trombonist in that band, Arthur (Michael Angarano), is a sleepy-eyed, sweet-natured young man on the cusp of adulthood. Just as his parents (Griffin Dunne and Jeanetta Arnette) are splitting up as the result of dad's philandering, Arthur finds himself inching toward a romance with Lila (Olivia Thirlby, better-known as Ellen Page's best friend in Juno), a bespectacled new girl at school. Their budding love is a marked contrast to the eroding relationships that surround them.
Arthur works at a Chinese restaurant with his former babysitter, Annie Marchand (Kate Beckinsale). A single mother, she spends much of her time dealing with her needy ex-husband, Glenn (Sam Rockwell), an alcoholic born-again Christian who is trying hard -- albeit not hard enough -- to get his life in order. "I'm not as much of a screw-up as you think I am," he tells an understandably skeptical Annie. Glenn adores their 4-year-old daughter, Tara (Gracie Hudson), but is incapable of controlling his own insecurities and anxieties.
Annie weathers her own foibles. She is a loving mother, but the stresses of parenting take their toll. And she is carrying on a reckless affair with the husband (Nicky Katt) of a coworker (Amy Sedaris, surprisingly effective in a dramatic role).
Snow Angels extends an admirable generosity to its flawed characters. Green, who wrote as well as directed, has an uncanny ability to let audiences consider Annie and Glenn from several perspectives, including their own, thereby affording a richer understanding of people and their motives.
Glenn is definitely bad news, but he is also heartbreakingly sympathetic and (mostly) well-intentioned. Similarly, Annie is a strong mother and devoted daughter, but she, too, cuts herself too much slack. Although Annie harangues Glenn for being a lax parent, it is under her watch that a central tragedy befalls.
There are betrayals and bad choices, even manifest evil, but Snow Angels is resolutely empathetic to its characters -- almost disconcertingly so. As Arthur's father says after his son finds him dating another woman, "Sometimes we do things we can't explain." It's an observation applicable to much of what transpires here. In fact, Snow Angels concludes, sometimes we do things we cannot even fathom.
Green elicits brilliant performances. Beckinsale finally proves that she can act, playing a woman of real complexities and contradictions. Rockwell gives a devastating performance as the volatile, deeply insecure Glenn Marchand. Here's hoping both actors will be remembered come Oscar time.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1, Snow Angels' print transfer is stunning. Director of photography Tim Orr, who lensed Green's previous three films, captures the spare beauty of a snow-blanketed rural town, and this DVD does him proud. Details are sharp and clear, with realistic skin tones and bold black levels.
A full-frame version is also available on the disc.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital is sharp and clear, but the mix rarely ventures away from the front speakers. A French audio track is available, with optional subtitles in French, Spanish and English for the hearing-impaired.
No extras are included on the disc. Huh? What? The dearth of supplemental material seems unconscionable for a work of this quality.
A bleak and searing motion picture, Snow Angels possesses a genuine compassion for its flawed characters, a trait that keeps the proceedings from sinking into complete despair. Sensitive direction and strong performances (especially from the always terrific Sam Rockwell) make this well worth seeing.