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Chris Reardon/2006 Snow Blower Productions
Everybody Run ... Classy Kate Beckinsale is Annie Marchand, a single mom and waitress with an ex-husband problem, in 'Snow Angels,' opening Friday.

Ice House

The domestic dramas in 'Snow Angels' leave a chill

By Don Hines

The new film Snow Angels opens on a frozen football field. A high school marching band slides out of formation, mangling Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer," when two shots ring out. Then the film flashes back two weeks, and Snow Angels is off and running.

A sledgehammer is an apt metaphor for the plot, as the tragic climaxes of everyday life beat down upon the small-town characters: infidelity, divorce, adolescent anomie, unemployment, alcoholism, restraining orders. And then their real troubles begin.

Despite the melodramatics, writer/director David Gordon Green is more of a miniaturist at heart. In his delicately eccentric earlier films (George Washington, Undertow, All the Real Girls), too precious for some, he wields a jeweler's hammer to create Southern outsider art.

In this, his latest film, Green leaves the quirky South and turns north to a very bleak place. Green adapted the screenplay from a 1993 Stuart O'Nan novel set in Raymond Carver country: western Pennsylvania, circa 1974. Green moves the story to a less specific time and place. Record players coexist with modern cell phones—a first symptom of the film's disjointedness.

The story loosely wraps itself around 16-year-old Arthur (Michael Angarano), a trombone player in the marching band. His parents (Jeanetta Arnette and a self-absorbed Griffin Dunne) decide to separate. Arthur buses tables at the local Chinese restaurant, devoid of Chinese workers or customers, where a single-mother waitress, Annie (a somewhat miscast Kate Beckinsale), teasingly reminds Arthur of when she once baby-sat him. Her unstable ex-husband, Glenn (Sam Rockwell), wants back into her life ("I don't care what the judge says," he explains. "I'm not a dangerous person").

Arthur's budding romance with the new art chick in school, Lila (Olivia Thirlby, the best friend from Juno, unrecognizable in cat-eye glasses), is the only warm relationship in the film, and one of the sweetest teen courtships ever filmed.

Arthur and Lila aside, the remainder of the film turns frigidly gray inside and out. Arthur's mother is numbed by her separation. Glenn grows increasingly desperate when Annie rebuffs him. Green's longtime cinematographer, Tim Orr, beautifully photographs wintertime Nova Scotia impersonating Pennsylvania, but unlike the rural Southern settings of Green's first three films, the landscape offers no solace.

Nuanced acting and off-kilter scene length render Snow Angels almost bearable. Angarano and Thirlby are delightful. They seem to belong in another, happier, movie. Rockwell's Glenn is initially optimistic to a fault, dripping flop-sweat, and his interplay with Beckinsale feels naturalistic. Beckinsale has never come across so earthy, although she still looks to the manner born—like a ballet dancer at a square dance. Nicky Katt is excellent as a self-important Lothario. Angarano quietly grows in inarticulate confidence through the film.

Green's felicity with actors and respect for quotidian working-class life inform all his films. However, All the Real Girls was awarded the Sundance Emotional Truth Jury Prize, a warning sign for overearnestness.

Despite Green's unique gifts, the increasingly downbeat story and heavy-handed plot hammer dangerously close to yet another Sundance dysfunctional family home. Perhaps we should grant a cinematic exception to Tolstoy's maxim that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, unless said family appears in a Sundance film.

Movie Times SNOW ANGELS  (R; 106 min.), directed and written by David Gordon Green, photographed by Tim Orr and starring Michael Angarano, Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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