Snow Angels

Modern cinema is held hostage in a prison of 1’s and 0’s: a Wonderland of digital dimensions.

Locked in this gilded cage, fantasy in infinite variety can woo the ooh-and-ahh, promising (if not always delivering) a matinee that was once upon a time–and not so long ago–showing only in dreams.

Lord of the Rings was penned a half-century ago (more or less), but until technology caught up with the imagery of Tolkien’s classic, Middle Earth was widely regarded (as were many other imaginary lands and fictional environs as settings) an unfilmable endeavor. After watching Peter Jackson’s trilogy (and spending obscene amounts of money purchasing various versions of the DVD), it’s apparent to me that—at least occasionally—it’s possible to use CGI properly: producing one of these once-unfilmable projects without tearing out the soul of the story.

Unhappily, most of the time the amount of computer-generated material rises in direct corelation to the drop in any redeeming quality of any kind.

I refer to this as the Suck Formula. A related event (known as the “Jar Jar Binks Phenomena”) occurs when the acting ability of real human beings is reduced in corelation to the rise in the number of lines uttered by computer-generated characters.

The good news? There are still films being made in which dialog, cinematography and acting ability (delivered by an all-human cast) are valued more than special effects.

One of these is Snow Angels, released recently on DVD. Directed by David Gordon Green (Undertow) and based on the novel by Stewart O’Nan, Snow Angels is powerful without melodrama and well-cast without depending on any particular “star” to navigate the dialog. It’s an all-too-human (and thus familiar) drama that was—for me—somewhat painful to watch.

The films that affect me emotionally are tragedies where the characters themselves are much more familiar than the specifics of the plot. This held true with Snow Angels. Every so often I will see a film in which the characters feel so familiar that sometimes I get the paranoid schizofantasy that my life and the supporting roles in it are being observed a la Truman Show-style. It’s a little disconcerting to realize that lives as lonely, damaged, underarticulated, and human as these are mythforms every bit as real as Joesph Campbell’s eternal heroes. These people (and their lives) are familiar because they are us…and everyone we know. This sense of intimacy is furthered by Green’s direction, which seems to treat all the actors as supporting roles for the central drama (even the “main” characters, brilliantly realized by Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell, are no more or less familiar than the high school band leader and Beckinsale’s aging mother). This feels like an ensemble-style production, despite the way the main drama drags everything else along with it as we watch (as our own?) relationships spin out of control in a very ordinary (and thus eerily familiar) way.

Like Fargo, the wintry slush and lushless atmosphere are more than mere setting, but mirror the chill of internalized, unspoken emotional disarray.

Beckinsale and Rockwell are a seperated couple with a 4-year old daughter they both love who keeps the wounds of their decaying marriage rubbed raw. The daughter also seems to represent the frailty of their marriage itself–and the failure of both adults to live up to a lifestyle that they just are simply unable to envision, much less enact. Rockwell is a recovering alcoholic and born-again Christian who can’t seem to get his life in any kind of meaningful order. The same can be said for another couple, who have found that the son they share is simply not enough to keep the relationship together. The son—Michael Angarano—is by contrast a somewhat-awkward 15-year old high school kid who simultaneously seems childlike in his flirtations with Beckinsale (who was once his babysitter) while managing to see his own parents probable divorce in a pragmatic, adult way. Olivia Thirlby and Angarano hit the first blush of adolescent love right-on.

For this bit of nostalgia, most reviewers concentrate most of their commentary. Personally, I believe the film is more about the birth and death of love on a much more personal scale. The bittersweet quality Thirlby adds is a contrast with the more adult relationships. She can’t seem to find anything about Angarano that she doesn’t feel attracted to. While the adults can’t remember (or develop) any real reason that what they had ever was or should have been, especially as it relates to the children/teens that act as the emotional glue in these well-directed scenes.

One of the better dramas I’ve seen in a long while.

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