Mysteriously structured around two broken families and two fateful gunshots, “Snow Angels” reps a chilly departure for David Gordon Green. Tackling his first literary adaptation, the acclaimed writer-director has assembled a rich but uneven panorama of human suffering in a small town, awkwardly filtered through a young man’s coming-of-age story. Emotionally harrowing and gentle by turns, this well-acted winter’s tale is a more narrative-driven experience than Green’s more lyrical Sundance entries, “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls,” which may help it generate marginally stronger returns in specialized release despite mixed critical response.
The very title of Green’s new project suggests an icy remove from the grime and sweat of his 2004 Southern-gothic thriller “Undertow,” as well as “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls,” which were both set in North Carolina. “Snow Angels” was shot in the much cooler climes of Nova Scotia, though unlike Stewart O’Nan’s original novel — set in western Pennsylvania in 1974 — the film unspools in an unspecified location in the present day.
The opening shot of a high school marching band practicing on a football field, the camera weaving lazily in and out of their formations, at first seems entirely consistent with Green’s poetic sensibility. But the narrative engine soon kicks in when the band members, including trombone player Arthur Parkinson (Michael Angarano), are caught off-guard by the distant but unmistakable sound of gunfire.
The film flashes back to weeks earlier, laying out two parallel threads that we now know are destined to converge. Arthur, 16, works part-time at a Chinese restaurant alongside Annie Marchand (Kate Beckinsale), a beautiful thirtysomething on whom he’s always held an innocent crush.
Annie is having an affair with Nate Petite (Nicky Katt), who’s married to her tough-talking friend and co-worker, Barb (Amy Sedaris, in a small triumph of offbeat casting). Meanwhile, Annie’s ex-husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell), a recovering alcoholic and born-again Christian, persistently tries to get back into the good graces of her and their four-year-old daughter, Tara (Grace Hudson). Annie and Glenn rightfully assume center stage as the most tortured and conflicted figures in the drama, as Annie’s perfidy is revealed and Glenn subsequently falls off the wagon — allowing his violent, controlling nature to re-emerge, often in the name of religion.
Next to all this emotional turmoil, Arthur’s story exists at a curious remove from the action, and is muted and low-key by comparison. Coping with his own parents’ recent separation, the shy teen begins hanging out with Lila (Olivia Thirlby), a girl with a winningly offbeat personality and a talent for photography. As he demonstrated in “All the Real Girls,” Green has a gift for capturing the tenderness and spontaneity of young love, and Angarano and Thirlby’s moments together have a sweet, unabashedly sincere ring to them.
For audiences, pinpointing the elusive connection between the two threads will prove the heart of the matter. Aside from the fact that in each instance, a rejected father attempts to reconcile with wife and child, the film’s most understated and resonant suggestion is that Annie and Glenn were once as passionately in love as Arthur and Lila are.
An unforeseeable accident at the midpoint confirms the film’s superficial resemblance to other wintry examinations of family tragedy like “The Sweet Hereafter” and “The Ice Storm.” For the most part, Green maintains an impressive control over the script’s shifts in tone, even adding some wry humor to what could have been an oppressively bleak picture. It’s the director’s way of saying that domestic life (and drama, for that matter) is more than just the sum of its miseries.
Yet that sensibility ends up costing the film some credibility in its final, violent moments, and its explanation of those mysterious gunshots feels both agonizing and curiously rote. Green may be following O’Nan’s text, but this wouldn’t be the first such film to use a climactic tragedy to resolve what should, in theory, be unresolvable.
In the end, “Snow Angels” is perhaps best understood as a study in community isolation, in which personal connections are inevitably fleeting and the private pain of others, as suggested by the final shot, is all too easily forgotten.
Rockwell’s wounded, self-lacerating histrionics capture Glenn’s rapid transformation from an eager-to-please guy to a frighteningly unstable personality, his cocktail of booze and religious fanaticism no less moving for being so misguided. Beckinsale firmly holds the screen against him, and her emotional range expands rewardingly as Annie’s rejections of Glenn become angrier and more pronounced.
The challenge of adapting someone else’s material has resulted in a more concrete, earthbound work than one expects from Green, with fewer Terrence Malick-like visual abstractions. Still, the camera (wielded by the helmer’s regular d.p., Tim Orr) does lurch poetically skyward on occasion, while the beautiful outdoor photography extends Green’s fascination with nature as a realm of beauty and danger, a place where men, women and children alike experience their final reckonings.