Snow Angels (2008)

2 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Snow Angels” is a film about highs and lows of human relationships, with different stories and an ensemble cast surrounding a central tragedy. It begins as a high-school marching band rehearses their version of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” on the football field, when suddenly, gunshots are heard in the distance. It’s inevitable that we see what builds up to those shots, beginning, as the caption puts it, “weeks earlier.” We meet one of the band members, Arthur (Michael Angarano), a shy, insecure high-school student, as he works in a Chinese restaurant (which I just realized has no Chinese employees) with his former babysitter, Annie (Kate Beckinsale). Arthur hasn’t had a girlfriend yet, possibly because he’s always had a crush on Annie who loves to tease him about their time together (“I totally used to give you baths”). And the timing couldn’t be more perfect, as Arthur’s parents are going through a divorce (because it turns out his father is having an affair), and as his dad moves out of the house, a nerdy, fun transfer-student, Lila (Olivia Thirlby, wonderful here), notices Arthur, comes into his life, and becomes his girlfriend.

This story about Arthur is undoubtedly my favorite part about “Snow Angels,” as it shows depth and weight in presenting this kid going through a tough time in his life and finding his first love, helping him deal with it. I recall Chicago Tribune film-critic Michael Phillips, when reviewing the film as guest-critic on “Ebert & Roeper,” described this appearance of Lila as “a gift from heaven,” and that always fascinated me because that is pretty much what this is about. Here is this gloomy situation involving parents’ divorce, and Arthur knowing the truth about his dad well before his mom realizes it, and in comes this newcomer who bonds with him and they share something for one another. This is one of the best high-school romances I have ever seen—it’s very sweet, and yet it seems real in the personalities of these two characters and how they playfully joke with one another, building up to a moment later in which Lila softly, ultimately states how she feels about Arthur, and Arthur can’t help but feel the same way, despite not knowing how to react.

Unfortunately, that is merely a subplot constantly pushed aside by the darker, gloomier aspects of the story within “Snow Angels,” which mostly has to do with the issues of Annie. Annie has gotten out of a failed marriage with Glenn (Sam Rockwell), the father of her 4-year-old daughter, whom constantly makes things difficult. Ever since his suicide attempt, Glenn has quit drinking, turned to Jesus, and tries to do the right thing. But he hasn’t changed for the better, it seems. The reason Annie left him was because he’s incredibly awkward, can’t hold a job, has violent tendencies, and is an alcoholic. And now, as he sometimes looks after their daughter every now and then, he wants Annie back. But Annie isn’t about to let him back into her life. Meanwhile, she is currently having an affair with Nate (Nicky Katt), the husband of her best friend, Barb (Amy Sedaris). Soon enough, the affair is revealed, bringing further complications into Annie’s life, even before her daughter winds up missing.

If Arthur and Lila’s story represents the highs of human relationships, then everything involving Annie and Glenn represents the lows. But it’s not only emotional conflict, adultery, and anger; it’s also guilt, violence, and loss. And it only gets more depressing as it continues, building up to the tragedy that was set up in the beginning of the film.

And this is where I am a bit uncertain when it comes to deciding a “Verdict” for this film. Maybe it’s because the lighter romantic moments with the high-schoolers won me over so much, but it’s somewhat hard for me to get into the darker material surrounding the adult characters. I mean, those scenes are well-acted, smartly written, and well-directed, and I’m not saying that because it’s a downer, it’s a failure. I mean, a good solid portion of films are muted and downbeat. But when you have to have a cohesive narrative driving the emotional aspects forward for an effective payoff…I don’t know. It seems to be building up to something, and while that inevitable dramatic payoff is there, I’m not sure it all comes together in a way that fully makes us understand what has happened and for us to take in the tragic climax. The power isn’t there behind it, in my opinion, and as a result, I feel like I sat through much ado about nothing.

I understand that “Snow Angels” is based on a novel, and to my knowledge (having not read it), writer-director David Gordon Green was faithful to the source material when adapting it for the screen. But when I get down to what I really think about “Snow Angels,” I think there’s a perfectly satisfying story within the teen-romance material and around Arthur. There’s an interesting short film here trapped in a dark, gloomy story about the lows of adult relationships, when there’s a cohesive story about a kid (Arthur) finding a special-someone to be with, and questioning relationships in the process (there’s some drama in there, in how he feels about his dad going back and forth between home and elsewhere, and also in how he doesn’t know how to comfort someone who needs assistance). Right there is an interesting, full-circle story structure trapped in an uneasy story about a few seriously disturbed individuals.

And I know what they’re trying to do—trying to contrast young relationships with older. So it either works for you, or it doesn’t. For me, it is true that it is acted well (though there are some parts when you feel that Beckinsale was probably miscast, and Rockwell is hard to watch at times) and a lot of moments ring true. And it is an effective representation of ordinary people going through ordinary problems before they realize they can’t deal with it anymore. So despite my personal issues with the structure, I give “Snow Angels” a mild recommendation because of that. Sure, it’s inconsistent and without Arthur and Lila’s romance, it’d just be OK; but there are many individual moments that convince to keep watching it, so I can’t recommend it. I like “Snow Angels.” I wanted to love it, though.

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