Snow Angels - remember that title. Write it down if you have to. People always ask me to recommend a good movie they can rent. Here it is. Director David Gordon Green broke into the mainstream this summer with the comedy Pineapple Express, but he's been making great little indie films like George Washington and Undertow for years. Snow Angels is as fine a picture as any he's made. After a limited theatrical release earlier in 2008, the movie comes to DVD on Sept. 16, where it will hopefully be properly discovered.
Because so much of the story's power comes from not knowing where the road will lead, I'm going to avoid saying too much about the plot. Here's what you need to know: It begins on a high school football field where a disaffected teenager named Arthur Parkinson (Michael Angerano) participates in band practice while his new girlfriend Lila (Juno's Olivia Thirlby) looks on. Practice is suspended when gunshots are heard echoing across the field.
The movie then flashes back several weeks to follow a number of people whose lives are somehow interconnected. We learn that Arthur feels some resentment toward his divorcing parents (Griffin Dunne and Jeannetta Arnette) and confides in his co-worker at a local restaurant, Annie Marchand (Kate Beckinsale). She's of little help considering that she has her own marriage problems, having recently split from husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell), who attempted suicide immediately afterward. The two share custody of young daughter Tara, while Glenn repeatedly attempts to reconcile with his reluctant wife. In the middle of all this martial drama, Arthur meets Lila, who tries to break through his self-protective emotional wall. When a local tragedy occurs, all the characters' lives start intersecting in unexpected - and sometimes disturbing - ways. And through it all, we inch closer and closer to the knowledge of those looming gunshots.
There's so much more to Snow Angels, but like I said, I'm not intending to ruin any of it. This is the kind of story that isn't necessarily plot-driven, and yet it is the sequence of events that ultimately reveals the themes of life and death, love and loss, forgiveness and salvation. Does it sound like a downer? Perhaps. There is more than one tragedy at play here. However, I subscribe to the school of thought that says no great movie is ever depressing. How can it be when the writing, the acting, and the direction are so thrillingly alive?
At its core, Snow Angels is about forgiveness of oneself and others. How do you forgive someone who has wronged you deeply? How do you forgive yourself once you've irrevocably hurt someone you care about? Is forgiveness even possible, and if it is, at what cost? These are questions asked by the movie. Green - who wrote the screenplay from Stewart O'Nan's novel - offers no easy answers. The film's final image, which seems arbitrary until you really think about it, proves that there are none anyway. Forgiveness is ultimately a struggle. A worthwhile one, perhaps, but a struggle nonetheless.
Given that the movie deals with heavy themes and is, at best, sad in tone, you might be wondering why I'm recommending it so passionately. It's simple: this is one of the year's best films. Green avoids all traces of preachiness or sentimentality; he simply presents these characters and allows you to know them deeply. He's also got a keen sense of atmosphere in capturing their desperate lives: the way a television drones in the background during a lovers' quarrel, the desolate feel of a high school sports stadium in the dead of winter, the cramped condition of a teenager's bedroom. Watching Snow Angels is like eavesdropping into somebody's life. You lose the sense that you're watching a movie and begin to feel like you're right there in this small town where so much is happening.
The performances are nothing short of mesmerizing. Kate Beckinsale, I do not need to tell you, is one of the most beautiful and glamorous actresses working today. I was initially a little dubious of her in this role for that reason, but that lasted perhaps five minutes. Without even needing to de-glamorize herself, Beckinsale disappears into character, proving utterly believable as this rural woman trying to pick up the pieces of her shattered life. It's her best screen work to date. The same can be said for the always-reliable Sam Rockwell, who deserves Oscar consideration. The actor conveys Glenn's emotional fragility and self-flagellating guilt so effectively that you sometimes want to squirm. Here's a guy who screwed up, knows it, and desperately wants to fix what is irreparably broken, yet understands that he can't. In Rockwell's hands, he is simultaneously sympathetic and unnerving. Angerano and Thirlby also do terrific work as the young couple coming together amidst the unhappy relationships around them. These are two young actors to keep an eye on.
Snow Angels is without a doubt a tragedy, which may turn some viewers off. But tragedy was popular with the Greeks, and also with Shakespeare. It's a valid type of entertainment, especially when done in a manner as humane and compassionate as this film ultimately is. Every so often, a movie comes along that knocks the wind out of you. Snow Angels is one of them.
( out of four)
Snow Angels will be released on DVD on Sept. 16 in widescreen format. There are no special features on the DVD, but the movie speaks wonderfully for itself.
Snow Angels is rated R for language, some violent content, brief sexuality and drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.
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