Snow Angels

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Snow Angels

Release Date: March 7
Director, Writer: David Gordon Green
Cinematographer: Tim Orr
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Michael Angarano, Amy Sedaris
Studio/Run Time: Warner Independent, 106 mins.

Given how generally peaceful David Gordon Green’s ?rst three ?lms are, he’s a surprisingly polarizing ?lmmaker.

His ?rst movie, George Washington, was almost universally praised, even by people who couldn’t quite ?gure out what he was up to with the meandering plot, the improvised vignettes and the strange setting. “His originality is indistinguishable from his mistakes,” wrote J. Hoberman in The Village Voice, and his next two ?lms, All the Real Girls and Undertow, began to convince a growing number of ?lm critics that what looked like quirks in George Washington were actually ineptitude. But his strongest supporters—notably Roger Ebert—remained committed, and Snow Angels may be their vindication. Adapted by Green from a novel by Stewart O’Nan, the ?lm is ambitious in scope, e?ciently plotted, and wonderfully acted, putting to rest any notions that Green lacks the capacity for cinema on a grand scale. In Snow Angels, Green turns his gaze from the American South, which ?lled every frame of his ?rst three features, focusing instead on a small town in snowy Nova Scotia and a few of the families who live there in various states of disintegration. Arthur plays the sousaphone in his high-school marching band and has begun to notice the charmingly bespectacled Lila. Meanwhile, Annie has separated from her husband Glenn, but he’s since found Jesus and sobered up. These twin tracks give the story its spine, and broken families accent its edges. Arthur’s parents are divorcing, Annie is seeing a married man, and Glenn, although he wants his wife and young daughter back, still seems like a wild card. All of these situations are in O’Nan’s book—the ?lm is quite faithful—but Green has coaxed them into a more cinematic shape and injected a welcome dose of muted humor into the ?lm’s ?rst half. No one will mistake Snow Angels for a comedy, but the story has the potential for such crushing tragedy that a light touch where appropriate helps ease the tension. What may be most surprising is that Green achieves the ?lm’s effects not through one or two gimmicks but from a broad spectrum: the adaptation, the inspired casting, the judicious use of improvisation, the eclectic musical choices, and the beautiful and bleak visuals by cinematographer Tim Orr and production designer Richard Wright. This pair worked on Green’s previous ?lms where scenes were artfully, even theatrically staged. In Snow Angels the look is more realistic, but it still allows room for visual rhymes, like the recurring image of an open hand. Most of the ?lm’s emotional ?reworks come from Glenn, played by an intense and broken Sam Rockwell, and Annie, played with precision by Kate Beckinsale. But just as impressive are the understated, naturalistic performances of Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby. As Arthur and Lila they’ve created that rarest of precious metals—a thoroughly beguiling, and believable, teen couple. The ?lm premiered at Sundance last year where gooey coming-of-age tales keep sticking to the soles of people’s shoes, but Snow Angels puts them all to shame with its gentle simplicity. I suppose the intimate scenes with Zooey Deschanel in All the Real Girls, and some of the casual conversations in George Washington, and the idiosyncratic pacing of Undertow may have foreshadowed Snow Angels, but when all of these elements are coordinated, polished and sustained they stop seeming like highlights and instead become invisible, slipping quietly beneath the story. While there’s plenty to appreciate about Snow Angels, it also feels familiar. We’ve seen interlocking stories before, small towns in anguish and a Christian loose canon. It feels staler than it should, which blunts some of the impact. But it’s hard to blame this ?lm for lesser movies that came before it, like the idiotic Little Children or the intriguing but ?awed Magnolia. No, Snow Angels belongs among the best ensemble tragedies, alongside ?lms like The Sweet Hereafter, even if it’s a trip we’ve already taken. Watching someone in a downward spiral can also seem pointless if it’s the thrust of a ?lm, but Snow Angels balances its darker subplots with Arthur and Lila’s budding relationship, not as a direct parallel but as an example of beautiful recklessness. These two young people are falling in love even though they have front-row seats to the worst that a marriage can become, an act of audacious, youthful optimism, a ?ickering match in a gale-force wind that somehow manages to stay lit.