Chris Reardon©2006 Snow Blower Productgions, L.L.C.
THE BIG CHILL: Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby try to heat up 'Snow Angels.'
Emotions run cold in 'Snow Angels'
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. 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 events, writer/director David Gordon Green is more of a miniaturist, however. 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 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 but trying ex-husband, Glenn (Sam Rockwell), wants back into her life. "I don't care what the judge says," he overexplains. "I'm not a dangerous person." Arthur's budding romance with the new art chick in school, Lila (Olivia Thirlby, Juno's best friend, unrecognizable in cat-eye glasses) is the only warm relationship, 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 rebukes 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.
Angarano and Thirlby are delightful; they seem to belong in another, happier, movie. Rockwell's Glenn is initially optimistic to a fault, and his interplay with Beckinsale feels naturalistic. Beckinsale has never come across as 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. 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.
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