Wintery small-town dramas are not exactly a rare commodity in recent indie cinema, but Snow Angels (written and directed by David Gordon Green) does it well. It doesn’t pull its punches with the gritty subject matter, but if you can get past the bleakness, you’ll find an oddly beautiful film. It stars Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, and Michael Angarano.
Snow Angels opens with high school student Arthur Parkinson (Angarano) practising trombone with the school marching band when two gunshots ring out from nearby. The films then jumps back in time, and works its way up to that point again. It focuses on two families in crisis. Arthur’s parents are separating, and his co-worker and ex-baby-sitter, Annie (Beckinsale), is trying to deal with raising a young daughter alone. Annie’s estranged husband, Glenn (Rockwell), claims to have made changes in his life, and wants to become part of the family again. He’s become a devout Christian, and on a rare outing with his daughter, tells her that “Daddy doesn’t drink beer anymore”. Arthur’s budding romance with a new student (Olivia Thirbly) and Annie’s gradual re-acceptance of Glenn looks promising, yet all that time, the viewer has that opening scene in the back of their mind. And at around the halfway point, Snow Angels takes a drastic change. To discuss anything after that point would lead to major spoilers, but it’s suffice to say that the last half of the film constitutes a slow, tragic descent, until the film’s shocking finale.
Snow Angels is not an easy film to watch. It’s depressing and bleak. Yet, at the same time, there is warmth to the characters that propels the film along. Green develops every character fully, which is rare in ensemble films. These characters – even those who could potentially be boiled down to “good” and “bad” stereotypes – never seem one-dimensional. Annie is a deceptively complex character. She seems so well put-together, yet she makes awful decisions sometimes, and takes out her anger on her daughter. We follow the arc of her character, and sympathize with her. Green makes sure that we understand the motivations of each character, and that makes the outcome of the movie heartbreaking, but far more rewarding, in an odd way.
The relationship between Arthur and Lila is handled very well, too. Amongst the sadness and fragmentation of every other romantic relationship in the movie, the optimism of these two teenagers is comforting. They’re both kind of geeky, but also very charming, and “young love” is portrayed in a refreshingly low-key way.
The entire ensemble cast is superb. Sam Rockwell has the most bizarre role, and he takes the yo-yo emotions of Glenn and balances them to create a sadly realistic character. One scene later in the film (I’m not giving anything away) is just a long take of Glenn dancing, and while it could have drifted into uncomfortably humorous territory, Rockwell doesn’t let his character become a caricature here, or anywhere else in the film.
Kate Becinsale has a really tough role to play, especially in the second half of the film. She’s solid throughout, whether it be in a rare light moment where she’s flirting playfully with Arthur at work, or a dark scene where she’s yelling at her daughter. The cracks in Annie’s put-together facade are apparent, and as her character crumbles, Beckinsale is there with emotional force to back it up.
Angarano is also a great commodity to the film. His performance is feels very honest. Arthur is a somewhat introverted character, but the few moments of emotional outburst that Arthur has are important, and Angarano’s performance never feels forced.
I don’t really have any gripes with the film. It felt a little bit long, but looking back, I don’t see how any scene could have been removed or shortened. Every part of the film played an important part to the overall story, and the slow development is crucial in order for the ending to have a proper impact.
This is a very carefully put together film, yet it never feels self-conscious. From the cast to the cinematography to the soundtrack, everything works together so well. I think Green has created a dark, atmospheric near-masterpiece with Snow Angels.