...the film's positive attributes were for me not quite enough to make up for the movie's unrelentingly grim tone.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Earlier this year, Warner Bros. announced they were dissolving their two independent production arms, Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse. I can only guess the studio wants to concentrate on making money rather than financing any more possibly iffy propositions. It's a shame, really, because these divisions have produced any number of fine films. Nevertheless, you can't blame a business for doing its own business.

I mention this because Warner Independent Pictures helped with the 2007 release "Snow Angels," a small film from writer-director David Gordon Green ("All the Real Girls," "Undertow," "Pineapple Express"), based on a novel by Stewart O'Nan, which WB opened in limited release and which barely made over $100,000 at the box office. The real question, though, is whether "Snow Angels" deserved its fate. The filmmakers certainly constructed the film well, shot it professionally, and got the best acting possible from their performers. However, if my reaction to it is any indication, I can understand why audiences didn't exactly flock to see it.

It would appear that the filmmakers (and the novelist) intended the story as a slice of everyday life. They lead us to this conclusion by using the same montage of ordinary small-town events--people coming and going at the post office, construction workers digging up a street, etc.--to bookend the film's central conflict. If this is so, then whose everyday life is it? The incidents in the story are so dismal, so dreary, so bleak, it's hard to say they represent many of us. Perhaps the filmmakers intended the occurrences of the story as satire, exaggerations of life's misfortunes, to remind us that into each of our lives some calamities must fall. If this is so, then why make it all so glum and depressing? (David Lynch did something similar in "Blue Velvet," but he made a film that gripped us in other, exaggerated ways.) The fact is, "Snow Angels" is not a movie the filmmakers meant for easy, pleasant entertainment; they clearly meant it to enlighten us with a message. Fair enough. Yet they present the message rather ambiguously and leave us with practically no clear message at all.

In a small, middle-class town of the 1970s, we see a teenager witnessing the lives of the adults around him falling apart. The men, especially, in his life behave immaturely, and in contrast he behaves maturely. So, we've got a youth acting like an adult and adults acting like children. So far, so good. But I would ask, To what point?

The teen is Arthur Parkinson, played sensitively by Michael Angarano, who would also do a good job in "The Forbidden Kingdom" a year later. Michael's parents (Jeannetta Arnette and Griffin Dunne) have separated, the father selfishly seeing another woman for reasons he cannot explain. The father wants to get back together with Michael's mother, but he's still seeing the other woman. Meanwhile, Michael's old baby-sitter and co-worker at a Chinese restaurant, Annie (Kate Beckinsale), has just left her husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell), an emotionally disturbed former alcoholic who tried to take his own life and has resumed drinking while simultaneously getting religion. He, too, wants to get back together with his ex-wife, but Annie, understandably, won't have him back. At the same time, Annie has taken up an affair with the husband (Nicky Katt) of her best friend (Amy Sedaris). As these adults are fighting and trying to sort out their lives, Michael has fallen for a new girl in school, Lila Raybern (Olivia Thirlby), another sensitive soul like Michael's own.

If this tangle of lives sounds like the stuff of daytime soap opera, I suppose that is how the filmmakers want us to see it. In this regard, we have a kind of "American Beauty" going on, except that the satire in "Snow Angels" appears not nearly so pointed nor so caustically funny. Indeed, the filmmakers present none of this in a funny manner at all. It's deadly serious, particularly when, about halfway through the picture, a profound tragedy occurs that portends a further evil to come.

By the time the movie ends, the consequences for Michael and most of his acquaintances are grave and not at all humorous or even ironically sarcastic. They are simply disastrous for disaster's sake.

I'm sure one could interpret "Snow Angels" as an intense and deeply felt examination of the complexities of interpersonal relationships and how difficult they can be for all of us, especially for people who don't have the economic opportunities they need. Such an interpretation is well and good, and more power to those who view it that way. My trouble is that I came away despising most of the main characters (except the two teens, who are quite likable) and wondering why the filmmakers were stacking the deck so squarely against them. I found the film uncomfortably wallowing in self-pity, self-doubt, and misery for their own sake. With no compelling characters and no fresh philosophical observations, I found "Snow Angels" as empty a film as the people whose lives inhabit it.

Warner Bros. offer the movie in two screen formats, the original 2.40:1 theatrical ratio in anamorphic widescreen on one side of the disc and a 1.33:1 ratio pan-and-scan version on the other side. Obviously, I opted for the widescreen and only glanced at the "full-screen." What I found was a picture that looked slightly subdued, as though the filmmakers drained some of the color out of the image in order to show us how drab the characters are. This is a low-key film, so the colors match. The screen can also be somewhat dark and a little fuzzy most of the time. A moderate film grain provides a natural texture, but it also creates a slightly rough appearance. Close-ups are quite realistic, though, and they reveal good detail.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound has little to do except reproduce dialogue, which it does comfortably. If you don't expect much in the way of stereo spread, surround sound, frequency response, or dynamic range, you should find it works fine.

My guess is that Warners would say the major extra on this disc is the additional screen format. Since most viewers will only watch one format, I can't say it's much of an extra. Otherwise, we get a main menu; twenty-seven scene selections; English and French spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. In other words, no major extras.

Parting Shots:
Audiences will find value in "Snow Angels" for its sincerity, its quality acting, its occasional tension, and its unique style. Unfortunately, the film's positive attributes were for me not quite enough to make up for the movie's unrelentingly grim tone (like the colorless snow covering the characters' colorless lives) and its apparent lack of moral purpose. Unless the film's message is that life goes on despite the tragedies that beset us all, a rather obvious disclosure at best, the film served little purpose except to depress this viewer.


Film Value