LITTLE ROCK Movies come and go, and a lot of them divert us for a while. But I can't get David Gordon Green's Snow Angels out of my head - it has the quality of a tragedy that happened long ago to someone we knew not well but well enough. It feels like a funeral on a cold, brilliant day - sad but sunny and reassuring in an odd and adult way. We all will suffer, but all suffering is finite.
It is set in an unnamed small northern town; in the Stewart O'Nan novel Green adapted it's in western Pennsylvania, but for the sake of budgets and possibly the pale light, it was filmed in Nova Scotia. Anyway, it is meant to be an American town, with its share of gun-toting rubes and a high school marching band struggling through a blare and jingle version of Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" under the dismayed instruction of a supercilious director (actor's actor Tom Noonan).
As the band stumbles through its practice, we hear what sounds like a shot and the movie spools back a few weeks to reveal itself as a story of three entwining love affairs. Arthur (Michael Angarano) is a high school kid whose educated parents (Griffin Dunne and Jeanette Arnette) are splitting up in a highly civilized fashion. Michael works part time at a Chinese restaurant with Annie (Kate Beckinsale), a crush-worthy local beauty who used to be his baby sitter ("I so used to give you baths," she teases him).
Annie is dealing with the renewed attentions of her obsessive ex-husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell), an explosively fragile man attempting to use the couple's preschool daughter as a means of renewing the marriage, and conducting a furtive affair with dim Nate (Nicky Katt), who's married to Annie's friend and co-worker Barb (Amy Sedaris).
Arthur is also in the early stages of his own first love affair with delightfully offbeat transfer student Lila (Juno's Olivia Thirlby).
While the film doesn't underline the class differences between these characters, it's not difficult to see that Arthur's job at the Chinese restaurant is of a completely different order than Annie's. He's a middle-class kid, a child of divorce but hardly dependent on his tip money to make ends meet. Meanwhile Annie and Glenn are scrambling to sustain their separate households - Glenn has moved in with his parents and accepted the Lord and a job as a commission salesman at a carpet warehouse, while Annie leans heavily on her mother for child care and groceries. Sometimes she's too exhausted to pay much attention to her daughter, a venial sin that extracts a price.
Cinematographer Tim Orr catches the beauty of the town that the characters never notice - when Lila, a budding photographer, shows Arthur her photographs of the town he fails to recognize the place he has lived all his life - and observes the petty victories and setbacks that comprise ordinary life.
Green is most often considered an heir to Terrence Malick in that his films visually capture the beauty of banality, but there's also a debt to British kitchen sinknaturalism. Green echoes directors like Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and Lindsay Anderson in his commitment to the emotional truth that underpins his actors' performances - he turns the audience into eavesdroppers.
Snow Angels is Green's fourth film and the first that is an adaptation (he wrote the script for hire, for another director). While the aggregate Q score of the actors may be modest - Beckinsale is best known for the Underworld horror franchise and Rockwell is one of those character players who seems to submerge himself in his roles - it's still Green's most glamorous cast to date. It's low-budget but a transitional step from artful indie tone poems like George Washington (2000) and All the Real Girls (2003).
Yet, while it might be viewed as a step toward conventionalmoviemaking, Snow Angels is still very much a David Gordon Green movie, rife with minor revelations and moments of gentle awe. There is brutality in Snow Angels, but little bitterness. Like sunlight on ice, its painful beauty glints and stabs the eyes.
MovieStyle, Pages 39 on 04/25/2008