Snow Angels takes director David Gordon Green out of the American South, and it takes his film-making away from atmospheric meditation and into dense storytelling. His wintry small-town tale, adapted by Green from Stewart O'Nan's 1994 novel, examines a warm teenage relationship that flourishes amid collapsing marriages and a child's death.
The tender teen couple, trombonist Arthur and shy photographer Lila (Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby), will charm the audience (and draw the agents with offers), but the skirmishes around them among the older generations suggest the futility of marriage or anything close to it. Add the death of a child who goes wandering on an icy lake when a parent is otherwise engaged, and punishment by shotgun from a vengeful Christian husband, and you have a film that is far more grim than its grey wintry setting.
The audience for this film is likely to be limited to diehard David Gordon Green admirers who are willing to go the mournful distance. Americana of this sort generally does not travel well. Moreover, in Green's native South, the film's severe application of Christian justice by shotgun could prove controversial.
David Gordon Green was originally only the screenwriter of Snow Angels, which he directed after Jesse Peretz dropped out of the project. There's no denying that he has made this his own film.
In Snow Angels, Green is working with a larger budget than he had in previous movies, which enables him to frame the drama in this unspecified location with lyrical landscape shots of woods and rivers, and crane shots of a high-school band bumbling through practice in the snow. (The snow had to be shipped in by truck from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia, where Snow Angels was shot.) Cinematographer Tim Orr, who has worked with Green since the director's first film, fuels the mood with deft interior shots and anguished close-ups.
It's the human landscape that is complicated here in Green's script of interlocking woe. Annie (Kate Beckinsale) waits tables at a Chinese restaurant with wise-cracking Barb (Amy Sedaris) and Arthur (Angurano), who washes dishes. Annie has dumped her ex-husband, Glenn (Sam Rockwell), who has given up booze and chosen God after a failed suicide. He wants her (and their daughter) back, but she's sleeping with Nate, Barb's husband (Nicky Katt), which drives Glenn back to the bottle with a vengeance.
Elsewhere in the town where everyone seems to know everyone else's business, Arthur's father (Griffin Dunne) his left his mother for a younger woman.
Amid the ruins of relationships the teens' love blossoms with quirky comic tenderness. Yet production designer Richard Wright's cramped cluttered interiors, already theaters of anxiety, implode under the stress. Sam Rockwell is unsettling as the failed, repentant husband who shifts wildly from booze to Bible, and ends up with a shotgun in his hand.
Kate Beckinsale is improbable as an immaculately groomed and coifed single mom - in a backwoods hellhole far from Prada - until her child's death brings her to despair. Her lover Nate is improbable in a different way. He's a dead ringer for Sacha Baron Cohen, which elicits an audience reaction that's at odds with the emotional intensity of the story.
The bright spot in Snow Angels remains the serene couple of the awkwardly appealing Angarano and the winning nerd, Thirlby. If they can't light up the rest of the movie, at least they've lit up their future.
True Love Productions
c/o Cinetic Media
David Gordon Green
adapted from the novel by Stewart O'Nan