Snow Angels

Dir. David Gordon Green (Warner Independent)

In director David Gordon Green’s new film, “Snow Angels,” hardly a scene goes by without the presence of snow. The title is ironic, however, given that snow falls on characters who are often ugly, spiteful, and selfish. In a film that focuses almost entirely on complex human relationships, the frigid settings represent the brutal and unforgiving manner in which the characters interact. The gripping storyline and nuanced performances in “Snow Angels” force viewers not only to invest their time but also their psychology and emotions in a story about the destructive power of love and loss.

Green, noted for works that explore the subtle intricacies of everyday life, doesn’t stray very far from the familiar in “Snow Angels.” His characters emphasize once again the cold reality of human violence, which can even occur in the name of love. Based on Stewart O’Nan’s novel of the same name, the film takes place in a nameless small town. The story centers on Arthur Parkinson (Michael Angarano, “Seabiscuit”), a high school trombone player who must deal with the separation of his parents and the crumbling marriage of his ex-babysitter, Annie (Kate Beckinsale, “Underworld”).

As Arthur’s parents attempt to reconcile their differences, Annie and her husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell, “Matchstick Men”) struggle to maintain appearances for the sake of their daughter, even as Annie has an affair with her co-worker’s husband.

The relationship between Becinsale and Rockwell is striking not only for its violent outbursts but for the way it both humanizes and demonizes them. Rockwell is unnerving in the part of a born-again Christian who attempts to redeem himself in Annie’s eyes, despite her rejections. His ploy to use religion as an excuse to punish Annie is disturbing; but even as he commits an unforgivable act, he seems just as vulnerable as his victim.

In the same manner, Beckinsale’s performance is powerful and honest. Trapped by Glenn’s pleas, the lies of her affair, and even her daughter, Annie is possibly the most flawed character. But her pitfalls, while frustrating, evoke our sympathies.

In the midst of the adults’ tumultuous drama, Arthur develops a new relationship with his classmate, Lila (Olivia Thirlby, “Juno”). As the older characters become entrenched in a complex web of deception and animosity, Arthur and Lila’s banter is mercifully humorous and lighthearted. Their manner of dealing with the world around them is genuine, beautiful, and adorable—and seems more mature than the coping strategies used by the adults around them.

The film relies on scenes of daily life—a man filling his car at a gas station, a woman crossing the street holding a baby, a sweeping view of the town—to create a superficial sense of security. The exterior goings-on of this “Pleasantville”-esque neighborhood renders its interior discord shocking.

“Snow Angels,” while successful in its faithful representation of human relationships, suffers from some heavy-handed production choices that warp the bleak into the boring. Most notably, the ending drags on painfully as the climax gets buried beneath a long series of concluding scenes. Green manages to tie together each relationship’s loose threads—some neatly, some clumsily—but the time he takes to do so is excessive.

Still, the film’s achievement lies in making use of extremes. As “Snow Angels” closes with shots of daily life, what is fictional and what is plausible blend seamlessly together, leaving the viewer just as invested in the events of that small town as its own inhabitants were.

—Staff writer Denise J Xu can be reached at dxu@fas.harvard.edu