Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 4/15/09.
With three acclaimed films to his credit by 2007, David Gordon Green is considered to be one of American cinema's most promising young directors. Since his 2000 landmark debut film George Washington, Green's dream-like yet harrowing portrait of life in the American South has earned him praised from critics, notably Roger Ebert. Compared in some respects to the legendary yet elusive Terrence Malick, Green followed up his debut with 2003's romantic-drama All the Real Girls and 2004's thriller Undertow in which the latter was co-produced by Malick. After an attempt to get an adaption of the legendary John Kennedy Toole classic novel A Confederacy of Dunces with help from Steven Soderbergh as one of the screenwriters failed to get off the ground. Green took a break to plan several projects before taking on an adaptation of Stewart O'Nan's small-town drama Snow Angels.
A multi-layered story about young teenager dealing with the disintegration of his parents marriage as well as a long-standing crush with a former babysitter who is currently having relationship problems with her ex-husband. When the woman and her ex-husband starts to boil over due to an affair, the young man suddenly finds himself falling for a quirky young high school girl as a small town begins to lose its innocence. Written for the screen and directed by David Gordon Green, Snow Angels marks as a huge departure for the director as he moves North to create an enchanting yet eerie tale of small town life that is close to his own small town world in the South. With an all-star cast that includes Sam Rockwell, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Angarano, Nicky Katt, Olivia Thirlby, Jeanetta Arnette, Amy Sedaris, Tom Noonan, and Griffin Dunne. Snow Angels is an enchanting yet harrowing drama from David Gordon Green.
Arthur Parkinson (Michael Angarano) is a high school teenager dealing with new changes in his life. His parents Don (Griffin Dunne) and Louise (Jeanetta Arnette) are splitting up as Arthur tries to cope with it with school work and marching band practice. Around the same time, Arthur works as a bus boy at a local Chinese restaurant with his former babysitter Annie (Kate Beckinsale) whom he's had a crush on. Annie is dealing with her own problems raising her four-year old daughter Tara (Gracie Hudson) by herself while her ex-husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell) has become a Born-again Christian and just landing a job selling carpets. Though Glenn does get to see Tara from time to time, he hopes to have Annie back in his life while maintaining his own sobriety. It's around the same time Arthur befriends a new student in the nerdy yet charismatic Lila (Olivia Thirlby).
With Glenn starting to get things in order, Annie has an affair with a cop named Nate (Nicky Katt) who is married to Annie's friend Barb (Amy Sedaris) who also works with her as a waitress at the Chinese restaurant. The affair becomes secretive for awhile until Glenn starts to suspect something as Barb also finds out. With Annie stressed out in her own life while trying to raise Tara, Glenn starts to confront Annie and Nate over this affair as trouble starts to brew. Arthur meanwhile, learns that his dad is seeing someone as he starts to get close with Lila whom he's becoming attracted to. Then one day, a sick Annie is at home with a cold when her daughter is suddenly gone. Turning to Barb for help, a whole town tries to find something. What happens would change things forcing Glenn to become insane while a distraught, angry Arthur leans closer towards Lila. Then comes a day when the lives of an entire town would change forever.
The film is about disconnection and connections into the lives of various individuals in a small, Northern town in America. While small-town life isn't new to what screenwriter/director David Gordon Green has explored. The location and setting is very different from his three previous films as he goes into the north during a winter season. While Green's script definitely delves into the lives of the three main individuals of Arthur, Glenn, and Annie. He does create a faithful version of Stewart O'Nan's novel though the story overall is uneven. While there's enough work that's put into the coming-of-age story of Arthur, it's overshadowed by the drama of Glenn and Annie which reaches tragic proportions. Yet, it's setting and study of characters is what definitely attracted Green to this story as he puts enough attention towards major characters and supporting ones as he delves into a small town setting.
Green's direction is truly majestic in its setting though the film is shot mostly in Canada. Green's rich compositions and dramatic staging is what keeps this film compelling as he goes deep into the drama but knows when to pull away. While there's not much humor, Green knows when to use it when it's necessary. The drama is more theatrical in its performance but Green knows when to have his actors not delve into melodrama or high theatrics. It's all restrained except in parts for high drama as he knows when to place his camera to capture all that is going on. Even in getting shots from a character's perspective or a scenery that is enchanting with shots of nature that is reminiscent of the work of his mentor Terrence Malick. Overall, Green's direction shows a maturity in the young director who takes some of his old tricks and refine them for better dramatic effect.
Green's longtime cinematographer Tim Orr does brilliant work with the usage of snow and sunlight for the film's exterior, daytime scenes. Orr's photography maintains the richness that Green wanted for the film as there's a beauty to the look of small town life. Even the nighttime exteriors are well shot with low-lights and an intimacy for the drama with a beautiful shot one of the film's final scenes involving falling snow and a football field. Orr's camera work in the interiors is intimate as in a couple of bar scenes, it's low-lit to emphasize the dark mood of one of its major characters. The overall work of Tim Orr is truly phenomenal as he's one of the best young cinematographers working in the field.
Editor William M. Anderson does excellent work with the film's stylish editing with the use of fade-outs, jump-cuts, and rhythmic cutting to create transitions that seems abrupt yet energetic for the story. Green's longtime production designer Richard A. Wright, along with set decorator Ian Greig and art director Terry Quennell, does some fine work with the look of the high schools, Annie's home, and other locations that has a nice, quaint small-town feel. Costume designer Kate Rose does good work with the costumes in creating casual clothing for the actors with Olivia Thirlby's Lila character standing out the most with a yellow coat and hat along with cat-like glasses to create a unique look for her. Sound editor Larry Blake does brilliant work with the sound in capturing the quaint feel of the small town with layering of noises as well as the sounds of instruments and such for the film. Notably its opening sequence with the thundering sounds that would set the film's dramatic tone in place.
Green's longtime music composer David Wingo along with Jeff McIlwain brings a quiet yet plaintive score with acoustic guitars and ambient textures to play to the film's somber, small-town feel. The soundtrack consists of material ranging from blues to country with songs by Gene Autry, Shane Hartman, Tony Berg, Josh Crocker, Benji Hughes, indie-rock stalwarts Explosions in the Sky, and a soft-rock song from Bread. Another song that is used for humor and dramatic effect is Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer which is performed by a marching band.
The casting by Kerry Barden, Billy Hopkins, Paul Schnee, and Suzanne Smith is wonderfully assembled for its usage of big and small characters. Memorable small roles include Connor Paolo as Arthur's friend Warren, Deborah Allen as Annie's mom, Brian Downey and Carroll Godsman as Glenn's parents, Leah Ostry as Lila's sister, Daniel Lillford as Glenn's boss, Lita Llewellyn as a cop, Hugh Thompson as a police investigator, Angela Vemeir as Don's new girlfriend, and Tom Noonan in a funny role as the band leader. Gracie Hudson is good as Glenn and Annie's wild, energetic 4-year old girl Tara while Jeanetta Arnette is excellent as Arthur's mother Louise who is trying to deal with the split from her husband. Griffin Dunne is very good as Arthur's dad Don, a man confused about his role while trying to communicate with Arthur about the flaws of being a man.
Amy Sedaris is great as Barb, Annie's friend and co-worker who feels betrayed when she learns that her husband Nate is having an affair with Annie only to realize something more troubling. Nicky Katt is very good as Nate, a womanizer who is bored by his own marriage while his affair with Annie is also running out of steam. Olivia Thirlby is wonderful as Lila, the girl who would be a shining light to Arthur. Thirlby, known to audiences for her role as the best friend in Juno, is full of charm and wit while displaying an innocence to her that is insatiable to watch. Michael Angarano is excellent as Arthur, the young teen dealing with all that's going on around him as he comes of age in finding his first girlfriend and coping with the stuff that goes on his own. Angarano's performance is very realistic in the hang-ups of being a teenager while he has great chemistry with both Olivia Thirlby and Kate Beckinsale.
Kate Beckinsale, whose acting career in recent years has been spotty with action films and light drama, gives a performance that is describe as a return to form of sorts following her mid-90s breakout period. Stripping away the glamour for something more realistic and homegrown, Beckinsale's role as a stressed-out mother dealing with her child while juggling an affair and the presence of her ex-husband shows Beckinsale in playing a character that is realistic but also flawed. Along with a legitimate American accent, the British beauty displays grace and despair into her role as it's a phenomenal role for the actress. Finally, there's Sam Rockwell in a tour-de-force performance as Glenn. A man who is trying to improve himself though is often forgetful and pushy. Rockwell has some great scenes with Beckinsale as he displays a man who loses control while convinced he's doing what God asks him to do. It's a brilliant role for the actor who always gives a lot into his roles whether it's doing humor or drama as he's one of the best actors of his generation.
While it doesn't have the dreamy quality of George Washington, the romanticism of All the Real Girls, or the flat-out humor and entertainment factor of 2008's Pineapple Express. Snow Angels is still a harrowing yet intriguing drama from David Gordon Green featuring a superb ensemble led by Sam Rockwell, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Angarano, and Olivia Thirlby. Fans of Green's films will enjoy the richness and intimate small-town setting he creates while seeing that the Southern director is becoming more mature in his work. In the end, Snow Angels is an entrancing, dark, yet touching drama from David Gordon Green.
David Gordon Green Films: George Washington - All the Real Girls - Undertow - Pineapple Express - (Your Highness) - (The Sitter) - (Prince Avalanche) - Joe (2013 film) - (Manglehorn)
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