SNOW ANGELS (David Gordon Green, 2007)
Two nearby pops of a shotgun interrupt band practice in a small town in SNOW ANGELS. The echoing blasts don't signify hunting season but the tragic consequences of broken hearts and shattered illusions.
Interweaving stories of burgeoning and disintegrating love, SNOW ANGELS follows three couples in uncertain relationships. The most damaged one exists between Annie (Kate Beckinsale) and Glenn Marchand (Sam Rockwell). The longtime sweethearts are separated and do not appear to have a chance of reconciling their marriage. Glenn attempted to kill himself after Annie first rejected him. Now he's giving born-again Christianity and newfound but weak sobriety a whirl in hopes of repairing the rift.
Glenn aims to be a better man for his wife and daughter, but his new job and outlook on life don't seem to be making much of an impression on Annie. She has found comfort in the arms of Nate Petite (Nicky Katt), the husband of Barb (Amy Sedaris), a friend and co-worker at the Chinese restaurant. The more Glenn's efforts are ignored, the more he backslides.
High school trombone player Arthur Parkinson (Michael Angarano) works alongside Annie at the Chinese place. He once harbored a crush on his former babysitter, but as an observer of her marital difficulties, she has lost much of her fantasy mystique. With his parents (Griffin Dunne and Jeanetta Arnette) freshly split, Arthur is discovering that love is more complicated than it might seem. While he is cautious around Lila Raybern (Olivia Thirlby), a quirky new girl who takes an immediate shine to him, Arthur finds that he can't help but fall for her.
Although SNOW ANGELS has some of the trappings of a suburban hell film--think AMERICAN BEAUTY and LITTLE CHILDREN--writer-director David Gordon Green embraces the characters in his rurally located movie rather than keeping them at arm's length with snarkiness and irony. Viewing these often unlikeable people with empathy, and sometimes humor, instead of judgment and condescension makes all the difference in what could have otherwise been a miserabilist tour of a rocky relationship landscape.
The opening scene, in which the band director takes his young charges to task for a sloppy rendition of Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer", explicitly lays out Green's opinion of the damaged souls we will come to know: every person matters. At first glance the moment plays as a comedic remembrance of too-serious instructors making impassioned pleas to jaded students, but by the end it becomes obvious that this is the director's way of asking the audience to respect the humanity of characters who may be beyond the understanding of most viewers.
Clearly, the character Green has most in mind is Glenn. Rockwell's high wire act of a performance teeters from humorous to harrowing. The charm that Glenn once exhibited has given way to desperation that, while with its funny qualities, can be all too frightening. Glenn tends to be quick to abuse himself to show seriousness and penance. The trait can produce comic effects until it becomes apparent that he's near another breaking point.
Rockwell puts on a friendly face and acts like a man who is trying to get his life together, but in reality this is a rickety facade Glenn has tacked up to cover the truth that he's working frantically not to fall apart. His nervous body language, forced smiles, and blindly upbeat talk reveal him as the emotionally fragile man he wants to hide. Glenn makes others uneasy, yet Rockwell's jittery performance and Green's devotion to telling his story humanize him in spite of it.
The darkness of the Glenn and Annie thread in SNOW ANGELS is lightened with Arthur and Lila's tender and tentative romance, although the separated couple's carefree high school days linger in the distant horizon too. As he demonstrated in the excellent ALL THE REAL GIRLS, Green has a knack for articulating what his characters can't, especially when it comes to love. With Angarano and Thirlby gracefully conveying awkwardness, Arthur and Lila fumble their way into a sweet, realistic relationship in which sharing one's artistic photographs is a better indicator of trust and affection than mere words.
Likewise, Green often prefers longtime cinematographer Tim Orr's poetic images to tell as much of the story as possible over the dialogue. SNOW ANGELS may be the director's most plot-driven film, but it's still very much a mood piece that establishes place with an unerring eye and ear.
Whereas many filmmakers condescend in presenting working class people and their environment--either through sentimentalized small town fantasies or the outsider's pitiable view--Green respects the stolid folk and rugged beauty, both natural and man-made, by showing everyone and everything for what they are instead of putting them in scare quotes. The impassive people behave in familiar manners, and home interiors dressed with quilts and country knickknacks feel lived in. It's a major part of driving home Green's insistence to value these characters.
In retracing the steps that led to the opening shots fired, Green's adaptation of Stewart O'Nan's novel provides the context rarely found in news reports or fictional films about common tragedies. SNOW ANGELS can painfully burrow into one's heart, but such is the cost of empathy, or any human connection for that matter.
(For more on SNOW ANGELS and the director, read my interview with David Gordon Green.)