2007Director: David Gordon Green
Cast: Michael Angarano, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell
ith a reddish, slightly droopy pallor, David Gordon Green might appear in need of a good cry or a joint, depending on the time of day. Snow Angels, Green’s adaptation of Stewart O’Nan’s novel, offers viewers the former in spades, and might have offered both but for legal and financial necessity. Angels is no doubt Green’s most lachrymose movie to date. His previous films had their sorrows, but offered contemplation and lyrical imagery as a balm. Those who wished that Green might burrow into darker territory will rejoice; others will cackle at the oxymoron of a “thinking person’s tearjerker.” I’m somewhere in between: Snow Angels is good—Green’s talent has not depreciated—and powerful, but never both at once.
Snow Angels proves that we can’t take Green’s own estimation of his talents at face value. He claims the film’s theme is “people struggling to connect,” but just as often it’s the opposite: the obstinate resistance of tenderness. Awkward teen Arthur (Michael Angarano) is especially dogged not to step out of his shell. What resounds is the slightness of actions taken to encase himself in an antisocial bubble: his shy shake of the head at the suggestion he help wishy-washy dad (Griffin Dunne), or the contradictory hesitance he displays in even associating with the crush of his youth, ex-babysitter Annie (Kate Beckinsale). Glenn (Sam Rockwell), Annie’s ex, is Arthur’s aging counterpart, insecurity evolved into manic-depressive rage. Eager to preach scripture himself, Glenn is embarrassed when a co-worker opens up a bible—intimacy, for the first time in Green’s somewhat lyrical, prettified universe, is a scary thing. And much to his benefit, Green takes no pleasure in putting his characters through the ringer: he might be one of the few directors who’d make a zit on Rockwell’s forehead prominent, but not a gag.
Green has a heartbreakingly desperate performance in Rockwell, something like a sullen teenager still waiting to grow up at 35. One wishes that the first half of the film were so consistently discomfiting, but Green’s forte is sympathy, not sobriety. Nevertheless, he wrests greatness in the most unexpected places: Nicky Katt is a believably calm bad-ass, newcomer Olivia Thirlby is an oddly self-possessed geek, and Amy Sedaris is—sorry, Jerri Blank fans—a normal human being. These are the remnants of truth that survive amidst Green’s ever-flailing funny-sad tone. If Green’s approach to storytelling could use tighter reins, his actors carry the burden of letting us take Snow Angels seriously.
While Green may resolutely stray from making a straightforward comedy or drama, few films so self-consciously alternate between comedic and dramatic moments. Green doesn’t want the viewer dumbfounded as to how to react so much as to match every laugh with a shudder. It’s a balance of humiliation and empathy that ultimately works, but with unfortunate side effects: start giving an audience signs that it’s okay to chuckle and they’ll turn distracted, looking for indications of levity that aren’t there. Indeed, Green’s biggest obstacle may be compensating for the viewer’s false hope that a light, optimistic tone will prevail.
It doesn’t. Though the bevy of dark turns in the second half of Snow Angels left me a sniffling wreck, I feel more like giving Green credit for instilling a final act of unexpected horror with little moments of eerie calm. The restraint sometimes reads as an afterthought, plastered atop a base of sentiment. But despite all of these reservations, I am convinced Green has lost none of his talent since George Washington. No other filmmaker would think to evoke ominous stillness by moving the camera inexplicably far to the left of the characters in a seemingly ordinary dialogue scene, but Green does that several times here. It’s a motif as audacious as it is effective, from a secretly sentimental clown who enjoys tugging at heartstrings as much as weirding people out.
Snow Angels is currently touring the festival circuit, and will be released in theaters early next year.