David Gordon Green is a bit of a critic’s darling. He makes good films, but their hyperrealism makes them a little difficult for me to watch. He first came to the attention of many with “George Washington”, a very-independent look at some young kids in a very depressed town who come together during one fateful day. With each successive film, Green has earned the accolades of more and more people. He has also captured the attention and the right to work with a larger, more eclectic, more established group of actors. Whether this adds anything to the films is debatable. It could simply be his skill.
I have to admit that with each of his new films, I come to appreciate his skill a little more. It isn’t necessarily that his films are getting “More Hollywood”, but they are getting more accessible.
And the actors seem to be flocking to him, eager to star in his next film; with “Snow Angels”, his latest work, he has brought together his most eclectic and perhaps most talented cast yet.
Set in an unnamed northern town somewhere were snow seems to be on the ground more often than not, the High School marching band is practicing their formations, and the practice is not going well, to the chagrin of their director, when two shots ring out. Arthur (Michael Angarano, many television and film credits, he played Jack’s son on “Will and Grace”) turns to look and his girlfriend, Lila (Olivia Thirlby, “Juno”) watches him as he becomes concerned. Flashing backwards an indeterminate amount of time, the film picks up at the beginning. Annie (Kate Beckinsale, her best performance) and Barb (Amy Sedaris, going for the dramatic here) are two friends who work as waitresses in the town’s Chinese Restaurant. Arthur also works there as a dishwasher and he clearly has a crush on Annie, his former babysitter. She has problems of her own; juggling life as a single mom, with her job, and a needy, dependent ex-husband, Glenn (Sam Rockwell) a recent born-again Christian who can’t seem to get on his feet. He is one of those people who can never seem to make the right decision or do the right thing. He is so convinced he is making the right decisions; getting a new job, spending time with their daughter, that he doesn’t realize everyone around him is so miserable, most of which misery is caused by his actions. Annie’s life is exceedingly complicated as well, much of which is caused by her own actions. And Arthur has to deal with his parent’s latest break-up; his dad (Griffin Dunne) has walked out and taken an apartment near the college where he teaches. Then he meets Lila (Thirlby) who is attracted to him and they start to go out, giving each other friendship and comfort. Then, one day Annie is home sick and she falls asleep. Her young daughter disappears and the entire town begins to search. Things spiral downward from there.
The magnificent thing about Green’s films, and also, in a way, the drawback, is that he seems to have a great ear for dialogue and a keen eye for detail. He uses both of these skills to make his characters come alive and he lets them do what they would naturally do. This is a great skill for any filmmaker to have and Green has it. But it also makes the films seem realistic, too realistic at times, uncomfortably realistic at times. With this realism comes, on occasion, slower pacing. And this realism doesn’t always translate into visual filmmaking. These are some of the issues and troubles I have had with his earlier films.
But in “Snow Angels”, the combination of a dramatic story, great acting and the small town setting make the film seem real enough to be believable, yet also cinematic enough to be watch able.
Michael Angarano is very good as the troubled teenager with a crush on his former babysitter. It is interesting to watch him portray this aspect of his character and at the same time show how attracted he is to Lila. Arthur is a pretty typical teenager trapped in a small town, trying to work up the energy to escape and lead a life he has always wanted. His hormones are also raging, so he looks shyly at Annie and seems a little confused by Lila. Lila has to make the first move and practically profess her interest in Arthur, before he realizes something is going on.
It is also interesting to watch his relationship with his parents. When we first meet his mom, Louise (Jeanetta Arnette, a popular character actress with many television and film roles to her credit), she appears to be either drunk or have been crying. Her eyes are wide and she looks spaced out. Then you realize, her husband (Griffin Dunne) is leaving and this is the cause of her current state. So, for much of the film, she walks around in a daze, trying to provide a stable home for Arthur. But as we watch Arthur deal with this, Angarano shows us his character has dealt with this problem too many times. We watch as Don begins his new life as a bachelor; he moves into a new apartment, decorated with sparse furniture and spends time exercising on his treadmill, equipment dominating the otherwise sparse room.
The relationship between Arthur and Annie is sweet. It is clear he has a crush on her and what is even better is she recognizes this as well, flirting a little with the younger boy. At one point, he is working at the Chinese Restaurant on a busy Saturday night. Annie chides him “Don’t you have anything better to do?” You get the sense there is nowhere else he would rather be.
Then, when he realizes Lila always seems to be hanging around, he starts to talk to her. As their relationship grows, you can almost see the light bulb go off in his head when he realizes she is interested in him. Their relationship is interesting to watch and seems pretty honest and true to how teenagers probably get together in this day and age.
I didn’t recognize Olivia Thirlby at first, she plays Juno’s best friend, the one who helps her break the news to her parents, in the multi-Oscar nominee. In “Snow Angels”, she plays a slightly bookish looking young lady who is seemingly very attracted to Arthur. Lila seems like what every smart, young woman should strive to be when they are in high school. She is smart, curious, funny, and not afraid to go after what she wants.
I have never been a fan of Kate Beckinsale (“Pearl Harbor”, “Click”). Don’t get me wrong, she is a pretty woman. But her acting skills tend to create a vacuum, sucking out all of the life force in the room and leaving her co-stars to tread water as they swim from the sinking ship. In “Snow Angels”, she appears to have finally met the right combination of director and material. Annie is already stuck in this small town and realizes her chances of escape are pretty slim. A single mom, with a dead end job, she cares for her sick mother and has to deal with her ex-husband, Glenn (Sam Rockwell). She clearly loves her daughter, but her life is a mess and she isn’t helping things along by having an affair with Nate (Nicky Katt). When her daughter goes missing, she becomes distraught and is amazed by the show of support from the community. As Beckinsale portrays this characters emotion, we see all of the conflicting emotions running through her head. She yelled at her daughter the day before she disappeared, flying off the handle at the smallest annoyance. She needs to see her again to make it all better. She has done some bad things to her friend Barb (Amy Sedaris), yet she is one of the first people to show up and offer help. It is a very good, very moving performance.
Sam Rockwell is also very good as Glenn. From the moment we first meet Glenn, we realize he is one of those people who will always struggle with life. A divorced dad, he now lives with his elderly parents and practically immobile grandfather in his family home. There is a hint that something bad happened recently, beyond the divorce with Annie, and he is starting over. Glenn is a role that could easily have become hammy and over the top and Rockwell manages to make him believable and interesting. He walks a fine line at times, but so much time is spent establishing his character all the actions and problems are believable.
When he shows up to pick up their daughter, it is clear he is trying very hard to present a good image to his ex-wife. He quickly states he has found a new job and will start tomorrow and thinks this is enough reason for her to let him back into the house and into her life. But Annie will clearly need more convincing. There is an off-hand comment about Glenn being a born again Christian and we realize this man is trying to swim back from the depths.
Amy Sedaris and Nicky Katt are also good as Barb and Nate, a couple who are married and working hard to make ends meet. But that doesn’t mean they don’t each have their own problems.
The story moves at a measured, deliberate pace. We learn a lot about each of the characters and see how they interact and how these interactions help to keep these people prisoner in their lives. Not everyone will make it through this story and this only serves to illustrate how hard it is for some of these people to function in normal, everyday life.